Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?” This is what I loved this week.
Why: When this substantial book arrived in the mail, I was surprised by its impressive size due to the healthy amount of reviews contained therein, especially given the modest price of $15.99 on Amazon.com. With a decade of film criticism under his belt, local (to my neck of the woods) Chicago critic and filmmaker Jason Coffman has complied a truly impressive tome of reviews from the 1960s (or even earlier, there are a lot of reviews) to present day. Coffman’s reviews will speak to even the lay audience to the titled cinephile as he discusses such films as the most recent Ghostbusters, Jack Frost, Let the Right One In, Scott Pilgram v. the World to more independent films such as Mercury in Retrograde, Nude Nuns with Big Guns (definitely on my list), to my favorite indie horror flick, Basket Case. The charm of the book lies within both the variety of reviews coupled with the author’s laid-back and warm affection for all his subjects, even if they are “complete trash,” prefaced by an endearing, “Goodness me” (The Nail Gun Massacre). Coffman also includes a hilariously entertaining chapter entitled “Bad Movie Night” of the best of the worst films which scream to be viewed. I’d recommend this book (it would also be a wonderful gift) to anyone who loves film, whether it be a penchant for Steel Magnolias to Un Chien Andalou. Fingers crossed for Frankenhooker in the second printing.
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.
In this thoroughly creative and universal short story, author and journalist from the BBC World Service (photo above) explores the strong connection between scent and memory, how a simple whiff can conjure and propel us back into the most painful of past memories.
We are privy to a snapshot into the life of Kathy and her young daughter Ellie one year post Kathy’s husband, Eric’s untimely death. When she brings home a resale shop teddy bear to her daughter, Ellie names the doll after her father citing a similar scent to which Kathy agrees, much to her dismay. As the story unfolds, the bear becomes a compulsively constant companion to the girl, complicit in her whispers behind closed doors. He seems to perpetually stare at the mother and her new boyfriend, communicating a feeling of ultimate betrayal, an emotional neglect as Kathy forges her new life. This new man, his presence betraying the memory of Ellie’s father.
In this shorter short story, Saragosa flawlessly commands and transforms the mood of the plot with only a few sentences, morphing the daughter from saint to sinner, the mother from dubious parent to survivor. The scent of the father, though comforting to Ellie, becomes reminder of the terror endured by the mother during their marriage. The smell becomes the personification of the dead man, inviting him back into the house as not only a bear, but possibly inhabiting the form of their daughter, an inescapable entity of memory now passed through the possession of DNA.
It’s the perfect short horror story–it’s a seemingly simple story that takes you on a subtle though impactful emotional ride that encompasses memory, single parenthood, death of a parent, and the complexities of grief.
from Six Scary Stories, selected and introduced by Stephen King
The Summer People
Two years after reading The Summer People over a snowy Chicago winter weekend, the mystery and magic of the tale, written by short story maven Kelly Link still fills me with wonder every time it springs into my psyche. The basis is magically fantastic in every sense of the word. Similar to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Link creates a world where many of us wish to live, where the ordinary is peppered with the extraordinary, living as one, though the extraordinary is often hidden to most.
The story focuses on its main protagonist, teenage Fran, caretaker of everything and one in her life–her father, her home, the people who vacation in their southern part of the US and the homes in which they stay. Fran is a tough cookie; she’s weathered so much burden throughout her life, including an absentee mother, an unreliable and alcoholic father, and the knowledge of necessity. Fran knows that if she doesn’t keep up the adult responsibilities for her father, no one will, including the care of their otherworldly summer inhabitants who keep Fran’s mother, father, and now Fran captive by location. They are both blessed with the presence of magical beings who care for the family, and damned by them as their perpetual caretakers.
Link entwines the complicated plight of a lower income, broken family expressed through the steadfastness of a young woman and the whimsical quirks of the Summer People. Though Fran has grown weary of their antics with slight sprinkles of amusement, the readers learn of their supernatural abilities as they gradually unfold to Fran’s friend Ophelia. Almost by happenstance, Ophelia innocuously inserts herself into Fran’s life and naturally that of the Summer People, unknowingly entering into a world which may cost her more than her curiosity.
from Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link
In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)
Caitlín R. Kiernan
Ireland native Caitlín R. Kiernan is so damn fascinating that it can’t help but steep into her writing. Aside from her fiction career she has been a professor, having studied zoology, geology and paleontology in addition to publication in various scientific journals. In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888) reflects that respect for all that is old and of the earth by its setting, late 1800s and the unspoiled, soon to be colonized land of Alabama during that time period.
The story begins with an introduction to Henry S. Matthews, professor of geography and math who’s painted as a solitary, quiet man with a calm mind only stirred by fossils and the primitive. He picks through the strewn aside “antediluvian seashore in hardened bits and pieces” that the workers unintentionally unearth, armed with axes that bore through the Red Mountain to bring industry and water to Birmingham. The miners, referred to as “hard men” view Matthews as some curious creature that he himself surveys from the ground as he tags along during their work to reap the underground gifts. The mostly silent relationship eventually turns into one of ominous kinship as something is unearthed deep in the Red Mountain. Matthews is called to witness this unknown thing, lurking in what may should not have been disturbed.
Throughout the story Kiernan’s descriptions of mud, mountains, rocks and earth mirror that of a living being; nature itself is a body of organs, blood and bones. Kiernan expertly uses such personifying phrases to set her mood: “iron-ore bones…Appalachia’s long and scabby spine…fresh wound, these walls, this abscess hollowed into the world’s thin skin…” The tenor throughout the story is completely intoxicating; it’s dark, it’s wet, it’s cold, it’s eerie, it’s grey and unknown; “the autumn sky growls…” It’s everything you want in a short story, leaving an unforeseen punch that becomes part of your psyche. Bookmark it in your collection, or if from the library, make a copy and keep it near. You will never again look at the reaping of the earth the same again.
from American Supernatural Tales, edited by Guillermo del Toro (among others) and can also be accessed via Google Books here.
The Lady of the House of Mirrors
Rafaela F. Ferraz
Portugese author and natural history buff Rafaela F. Ferraz reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where our traditional Victor is Rosie, the recent inheritor of the store Dolls for Dreamers, where unique and sometimes supernatural dolls are crafted for the wealthy. Aided by her Igor (Theo), they set out to create a companion for an eccentric shut-in, the woman known as the Lady of the House of Mirrors. While they typically sculpt with clay and brass, this time they seek a human body to equip with the workings of a robot, a dead though living doll who is able to manage not only servitude, but also conversation.
We don’t know a lot about time frame, location of the story or much about Rosie’s past, but the crumbs gathered give way to glimpses of a world of awe. The upper class has seemingly cut themselves off from a seedy underbelly where Rosie’s workplace resides; there are bodies being sold for wings, young dead men in corsets, missing limbs and glass eyeballs. The world created by Ferraz is one of evocative imagery, all of which serve to create a highly sensual locale. Besides the allure of this new world, the real meat of the story lies in Rosie– the creation of a complicated, sometimes flawed and confused human being. A renown business on her shoulders, trying to fill the shoes of a genius inventor whose prestige may be unattainable.
The ending is ambiguous, leaving you with more questions than answers and much like the world of the house of mirrors itself, at its conclusion you are left in a state of wonder, which is consistent with the vibe of the story. Prior to viewing the tv show, Twin Peaks: the Return I may have yearned for that Hollywood ending, but Ferraz creates a Lynchian twist where the reader can inhabit a space where they both ponder the possibilities while accepting the mystery of that which may not be explained.
from Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists! edited by Steve Berman
The Sleep of Plants
The Sleep of Plants, written by Belgian author Anne Richter details the life of “she,” our protagonist who willfully transitions into a plant, seeking silence through a world of observation. Similar to In the Water Works, we see repeated allusions to nature, the inextricable connection between humans and the natural world and how one cannot removed from the other.
Our protagonist, “she” lives quietly with her mother and spends the majority of the story reflecting on how she seeks a life of solitude. The vehicle for this solitude manifests itself as the desire to transform into a houseplant and begins her metamorphosis by “planting” herself into a pot of soil. Her mother, upon finding her daughter upstairs in a flower pot, seems to decide to ignore the dirty secret and avoids her altogether. “She’s” fiance finds her and brings her water and food in the form of insects. Eventually, she transforms into a being that exists on water and sun, living as one that contently observes and never speaks.
Published in 1967 shortly following the advent of second wave feminism, The Sleep of Plants is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s film, Jeanne Dielman, addressing themes of solitude, boredom of the middle-class woman woman during the 1960s, and depression stemming from the pressure of expectation; to be a social being and marry against one’s will, in this instance. The story is compelling in its ingenuity, curious and somewhat confusing, all making it a great slice of life to ponder what the hell is going on. For an introvert, the idea of morphing into a plant sounds more like heaven than horror, but who’d want to eat all of those bugs?
from Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
Part 1 can be viewed here.
Part 2 can be viewed here.
Ten books we should all be antsy in our pantsies to read.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
In the second publication since her first title, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, about her time working in a crematory, death advocate Doughty explores death rituals from around the world.
Hot Mess Kitchen: Recipes for Your Delicious and Disastrous Life by Gabi Moskowitz and Miranda Berman
This is a cookbook you buy and can bring home to mama, unlike that last tragedy of a significant other. It’s a completely delightful and at many times hilarious cookbook with such whimsical entries as Deliver Us From Delivery, I Want to Punch You in the Face Pasta and My Ex is Engaged Enchiladas.
Logical Family: a Memoir by Armistead Maupin
Author of the before its time series, Tales of the City, continually writes with ingenuity and heart and his memoir is sure to reflect that beautiful spirit that shines through each book.
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America ed. by Samantha Mukhopadhyay, Kate Harding and various authors
This anthology of essays addresses various issues in America after Trump (ugh) including Trump’s “misogyny army,” talking to your children about fascism, Ivanka and faux feminism, et al. Each essay is eloquently written by such powerhouses Samantha Irby and Rebecca Solnit, among many other outstanding women including Chicago’s own Women and Children First co-owner Sarah Michael Hollenbeck!
The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford
The author of one of my most favorite scary short story collections, A Natural History of Hell has written a novel consistent with his last, exercising (exorcising?) his unbelievably innate talent for that which is both fantastic and horrific. Ford’s book also has probably one of the best cover reviews to date, “Richard Linklater meets Stephen King…”
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King
In this first collaboration between Stephen King and son Owen, the two weave together an incredibly descriptive, solid and addicting piece of fiction about a sleeping sickness that takes over all of the world’s women, covering them with silky, web-like coating. I highly recommend the audio; the narrator’s southern accents are terrific.
Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites by Deb Perelman
The first Smitten Kitchen is a gem of a cookbook, including recipes that are a little off the beaten path, including a cookie recipe with popped popcorn and stuffed lemony ricotta shells. The prospect of an “everyday” cookbook is exciting, one can assume it will include recipes with commonly found ingredients because when a girl needs a diy cookie, she needs it stat.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Ijeoma Oluo! If you haven’t heard of her, look her up. If you’re on Facebook, follow her. Her compassion and wit make her irresistible and as readers and learners we should all be excited to get a deeper glimpse into her thoughts on race, class, gender and our world at large today.
Strange Weather: Four Short Novels by Joe Hill
Joe Hill, author of Horns, Heart Shaped Box (my personal favorite), and numerous short stories (which I believe to be his strong point) has written a novel consisting of four shorter, creepy and inventive stories. If you didn’t know, Hill is one of Stephen King’s sons and has earned his place in the horror fiction hall of fame of his own accord.
What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Oh Hillz, if only it could have been you, we wouldn’t be on the doorstep of war with North Korea and somehow Puerto Rico now? The word is that she gets deep into the details, much like that of a Real Housewives memoir, recalling the tiny bits that we all want to know, including what she did the day after the election and what she had for dinner. Only unlike Teresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s prison memoir, she didn’t hear women having sex in the bunk next to her. Or maybe she did, I’m only on chapter one.
Update: Standing Strong by Teresa Giudice, previously included, was subtracted from the list after an entire chapter on her love and admiration of Donald Trump. Bitch, please.
Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?” This is what I loved this week.
Why: The tenets of this book are simple: eat whatever you crave, when you’re hungry, until you’re just full. Sounds too simple? It is and yet it’s not. The authors back up their theory by putting the basics of Western eating on the hot seat: health food = good and anything with carbs, fat or sugar = bad, and that eating has become an issue of morality. Guilty, guiltless, you’re a good person, you’re a bad person, all depending on what you put in your mouth. This book thoroughly dissects how the American food culture is dictated by big business, which encourages dieting instead of our natural ability to determine when we’re full and what we’d like to eat. Many of us in the U.S. are chronic dieters and analyzers of everything nutrition, from using My Fitness Pal to reading countless books including Wheat Belly, The Case Against Sugar, et al., all aiming to convince you to curb what you’d actually like to eat, which is less than sustainable in the long run. Intuitive Eating does something different, its plan thoroughly fleshes out the idea that by reconnecting to your internal cues, having faith in yourself and by dropping calorie counting you can determine what you’d like to like to eat, and how much. Read it, it’s fantastic.
Readalikes: The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch
Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful LIfe by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health by Ruth Wolever, Beth Reardon & Tania Hannan
Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?” This is what I loved this week.
Why: This is the perfect book for those wanting something a little different than the mainstream that’s captivating and slightly unnerving with a lot of heart. Set in the modern day, a couple who are also a couple of explorers journey to Ararat, which is also the mountain in Turkey where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed after the flood in the Bible. The novel explores the idea of what if Noah’s Ark were real, and a group of disparate entities: religious, academic, military, and anthropological were brought together to research what was inside. Author Christopher Golden (Snowblind, Tin Men) weaves a tale that teases out the lives of each individual character, using their beliefs and reflections on past experiences to determine their actions as they together face what may or may not be dead, trapped long ago in a tightly sealed coffin at the time of the flood. The novel ends with the true icing on the ark, a completely original and wonderfully mind-blowing ending. The audio version was wonderful, read by Robert Fass, whose subtle accents and articulation suck you headfirst into the heart of the snowy, dark mountain.
Readalikes: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (F)
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (F)
The Mayan Secrets by Clive Cussler (F)
In the Kingdom of Ice: the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeanette by Hampton Sides (NF)
The Lost City of Z by David Grann (NF)
I love a good scary audiobook during the summer; there’s nothing better than the juxtaposition of being terrified by while listening to vampires slowly sucking the life force from their neighbors whilst gazing at Lake Michigan on a baking hot day in the sand. Or maybe walking through Loyola’s Lakeshore Campus, watching the influx of baby bunnies and as the suspense grows, baby bunnies transform into lifeless, soulless beings hellbent on eating your brains.
What makes each of these qualify is a.) being a good piece of fiction, and b.) an amazing narrator. The perfectly chosen narrator enhances the experience of the novel by enabling you to slip into an almost dreamlike state where you’re completely immersed in the story.*
A Vision of Fire (The Earthend Saga, #1) by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin (2014)
Yes, that Gillian Anderson, and she reads it, too! Given her magnificent acting chops, it’s no surprise that her narration skills are top-notch. A Vision of Fire is the first in the trilogy about the compelling and multilayered protagonist, psychologist Caitlin O’Hara and the sudden onset of possession-like symptoms in a number of teens from across the globe. There’s a part in the book that was so scary that when I pressed stop and turned off the lights, I laid there unable to sleep, completely terrified. The series weaves together present, ancient history, other dimensions and lots of suspense, especially during the final book in the series. And again, Gillian Anderson.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (1977)
Cataloged as non-fiction in your local library (yes, this is cataloged as a true story), The Amityville Horror documents an actual demonic case study (take it or leave it) detailing first-hand interviews with haunted husband and wife George and Kathleen Lutz in their newly acquired Long Island home. The listen is so captivating because it taps into every human’s universal fear-what exactly is lurking in the basement, in the dark. And I’m not talking about the horror of finding your dad’s old Penthouse magazines “hidden” in some old box in plain view.
The Hatching (The Hatching, #1) by Ezekiel Boone (2016)
I mean come on, ancient spiders from Peru that swarm and devour a person whole within mere seconds? How can you not?! The Hatching is fun, silly, scary, creepy, gross, a complete arachnophobe’s delight and best of all, it’s a solid story that seamlessly draws you into the character’s lives and makes you want to read more. Luckily for us, #2 of The Hatching Series, Skitter, was published in 2017 and George Newbern’s buttery voice floats us through each title with not too much pomp but just enough inflection to really settle you into the world of killer spiders and female presidents. Oh yeah, there’s a female president. It must be sci-fi.
The Passage (The Passage Trilogy, #1) by Justin Cronin (2010)
The Passage is the epitome of nail-biting suspense. This present-day tale quickly turns post-apocalyptic with the unchecked bombardment of vampires and military deceit. Cronin successfully rips your heart out by the end as he delves so completely into the souls of the protagonists. It’s a lengthier audiobook but every word is necessary to capture and carry on this thoroughly intense journey in a world that could be your own.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (2017)
Oh, the soothing and clipped flatness of John Darnielle’s voice is music to my Midwestern ears. Darnielle is a stellar narrator, adding the emphasis that he first heard in his head while writing the novel. He’s also one of the few narrators that doesn’t add inflection for varying characters and somehow it works just perfectly. In a nutshell, Universal Harvester begins with one of our main characters working in a video store during the 1990s and hesitatingly investigates the strange occurrence of several videos being returned containing suspicious, somewhat macabre imagery. One immediately recalls the film The Ring, though as the parts of the story progress we become entangled in series of interlacing stories that wait until the conclusion to disentangle. Darnielle crates a slow, spreading suspense that at times shocks but is never gratuitous or banal.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)
Neverwhere is wonderful. Period. I listened to the audio seven years ago and I still think about it constantly as Gaiman’s otherworld descriptions mixed with his spot on pauses and inflections create a near-perfect audiobook (near-perfect because I never wanted it to stop). Taking place in London, the lead character, milquetoast protagonist Richard Mayhew is propelled into a Guillermo del Toro-esque Troll Market type of other yet parallel world. Neverwhere is such a perfect example of how the science fiction genre encompasses such an incredibly large pool of subgenres, in this case the creation of a curious, colorful and enthralling alternate reality that fills the reader with complete wonder. When you finish Neverwhere, American Gods is your next read (prepared to be blown away, of course, on audio).
Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987)
There’s nothing more blissful than operating through your usual day, whether riding the bus or walking down the block and being so immersed in a complete state of otherworldliness. That’s what you get when you listen to the Tommyknockers. In typical King style, he creates and painstakingly fleshes out every fiber of his characters’ beings: their habits, their looks, their communities, every little crumb you’d want (and sometimes not want) to know about the people in his books. The benefit to this method is that you become intimately involved with the story though the downside is that when strange beings begin to take over the souls of the townspeople, you ache for their well-being. This is a book that conjures such intense feelings within you that they often surface without warning years later.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
Easily my favorite book of 2014, Station Eleven is completely original and one of the most lyrical books I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written, the story is solid and by the end you realize that you can trust Mandel as an author. She’s got you. Though she inserts familiar themes to the post-apocalyptic genre: humanity killing viruses, rebuilding society, cults, good vs. evil, et al, she manages to keep it all very low-key, your interest is constantly peaked but she never raises your blood pressure to dangerous levels. By doing this, she commands the respect of her audience by never pulling cheap shots by evoking strong emotions not accomplished by the writing, but by triggering themes, which is often done in many science fiction and horror novels and films. Other motifs include memory, family, love, childhood, and a traveling band of Shakespearean actors, because like cockroaches, Shakespeare will live forever.
Infected (Infected Series, #1) by Scott Sigler (2008)
To quote season three of Twin Peaks, these audiobooks are the most, “wonderful, horrible…of my life.” Easily a readalike to the Hatching Series, Sigler constructs a world of psycho, mindless killers that contract their ill fate. Another virus/disease themed novel, except what it does to humans is hilariously gross and shocking. I’d recommend Infected as a chaser to a serious non-fiction title, or some Russian literature! The “horrible” part of this equation is that Sigler narrates the titles. Normally the author is preferable for the aforementioned reasons except here he LOVES to speak in other voices for various characters and oftentimes sounds absurd, may it be a bad Chinese accent or one that’s overly feminized. Oddly enough the voices fall into their own groove given that the content is often sometimes manic and unbelievable in and of itself. Sigler is also aware that his reading can be comically awful and both he and his audience eventually accept this.
99 Coffins (Vampire Tales Series, sometimes known as Laura Caxton Series, #2) by David Wellington (2007)
99 Coffins is the second in the Vampire Tales Series and though you don’t necessarily need to read them in order, I highly recommend the entire series, especially on audio if possible due to great veteran narrator Bernadette Dunne. This installment follows state trooper Laura Caxton as she hunts a resurrected platoon of Civil War soldiers turned vampires. Like several of the aforementioned novels, this series is enjoyable and light (we’re not reading Toni Morrison, here) but manages to have more guts and solid storytelling than most New York Times best-selling fiction. It takes itself seriously enough to know that the writer cares about the characters, and respects your time as a reader while keeping it fun. The only unfortunate piece of the puzzle here are that the book covers are misleading and aggressive, suggesting an audience consisting of a more hardcore cult horror ilk that may be likely to turn away a reader with a penchant towards historical fiction and strong female lead. Ignore the covers, stay for the stories.
*Let’s all note that this list is mostly a white dudes club, and that white dudes are ruling the horror audiobook game currently. Nonetheless, they chill the blood and disrupt he dreams all the same.