The Last Five Books

American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment  by Shane Bauer (2018)

Reporter Shane Bauer goes undercover in the South as a guard for a for-profit prison and shares his experiences, most of which are documented via hidden surveillance and notes taken during his time “inside.” What Bauer recounts conjures the plethora of human emotion; his experiences with the administration, inmates and system itself are gripping, shocking, bittersweet, appalling, and beautiful. Reminiscent of In Cold Blood in its narrative style, Bauer leaps ahead of the genre by using source material as opposed to imaginative retelling because oftentimes reality is more heart-wrenching than any mind could create. The chapters alternate between the daily ruminations and experiences of both author and inmates, and a history of slavery and its direct link to the current-day for-profit system, throwing into stark reminder that the institution of slavery in America has never really ceased, only donned new mask.

Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger (2019)

In this haunting book about friendship and memory, author Nell Freudenberger creates a beautifully complex portrait of the intricacies, intimacy and miscommunication that accompanies all relationships, but especially friendships between women.  The entirety of the book details the friendship between Helen (astrophysicist) and Charlie (Charlotte, writer in Hollywood), on and off best friends since college.  We are placed in current day, and then taken back through time and forward again with a bird’s eye view of the ebb and blow of their lives in micro and macro ways, with a subtle emphasis on how powerfully one person can shape us, while continually remaining a mystery.   Freudenberger weaves memory with the wonder of space;  the validity, and lack thereof of what cannot be seen but proven, and the ambiguity of what lies within that space.

The Pandora Room by Christopher Golden (2019)

It was a surprise and delight to see Christopher Golden reprise a number of characters from his previous novel Ararat, about the discovery of Noah’s Ark with an evil presence lurking within.  The Pandora Room is what you could call a “sequel-light,” where it’s not necessary to read the first but if you do, it’s a fun little insider nugget to meet up with some old friends.  The Pandora Room leads us down a literal cave into the depths of  Northern Iraq as archaeologist Sophie Durand unearths (so many puns) a jar that much like Noah’s dubious ark in Ararat, may be an actual Pandora’s Box, containing within it the pleasures of all the world, or the alternative, all of its evil.  This is a perfect “outside of the box” summer read, containing romance, action, history, mythology, memory and longing, family, and most of what you’d want to transport you to another world while reading on your lunch break or sitting at the beach.

What to do When I’m Gone: a Mother’s Wisdom to her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman (2018)

By far one of the best graphic/illustrated works I’ve read to date.  A mother/daughter duo write and illustrate this sometimes day by day, month to month and year by year guide from a mother to her daughter on what she can do/how she can cope following her death.  The illustrations and advice work seamlessly together, giving the reader a clearer picture of how they can take small steps after the death of a parent with visuals that seem to make it somewhat possible.  The advice begins concretely, such as “clean your house,” but is often followed up by tender life lessons, “You are numb. It’s time to put your home in order.  Give everything a place. Make it make sense.  Make your room the exact opposite of the randomness of existence, the mercilessness of mortality.”  This was day five, after her mother’s eventual death, written by her mother.  The book follows the daughter into old age, so that the mother may still impart lessons of moral standing and self-care that she won’t be able to relay in person.  The distillation of the book results in one whose reach extends beyond parent/child grief.  This book is for anyone who needs a guiding hand from a parental figure, and mother/author Suzy Hopkins fills in that space with encouragement and permission to switch jobs, take a mental health day, protest, travel, and pursue anything and everything that speaks to your individual soul.

Eat a Little Better : Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World by Sam Kass (2018)

This is a cookbook and thankfully it stole an entire weekend of my life that I’ll never want back–the recipes were that good.  That makes sense.  The recipes were awesome.  It’s very vegan and vegetarian friendly, and though about half of the book is meat/fish related, as a vegetarian it would still be a valuable part of any collection for the vegetable and grain recipes alone.  The basic tenet is eat healthy food that tastes good, without depriving yourself.  All I can say is that faro risotto with spinach pesto is my new GOD.  Plus, nearly all of the recipes are comprised of simple ingredients, minimal work and Chef Kass uses everyday ingredients to pack a lot of flavor, such as salty cheeses and lemon juice.  In my world, I don’t feel full unless there are carbs, cheese or a particular heartiness to the meal, and these recipes check the essential boxes, and I always felt satiated, for you, “it’s not a meal without meat” people.  For those people, the author advises utilizing meat and fish with a low footprint that’s both healthy for you, the planet and the animal.

Librarian’s Pick of the Week: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Why:  Even with the string of fabulous reviews from journals, newspapers, radio shows and even coworkers, I hesitated reading this book.  As a librarian, why would I care?  I LIVE THIS  LIFE EVERY DAY.  Fast forward a bit to being on a nonfiction judging panel and guess what shows up in the mail? THE LIBRARY BOOK.  Cruel fate.

Though the print version is filled with wonderful photos that correspond to the text, I downloaded the audio, read by Orlean.  First off, why isn’t this woman a professional voice-over actress?  Her voice is soothing, strong, and emphatic–all the most exquisite ingredients that strengthen the truly captivating contents.  Orlean’s research into this book alights with the Los Angeles Public Library and a fire that just short of decimated the building and its contents.  From there, we are taken on a journey through time and space, pulling fantastic tidbits from library history that intersect with the history of the LA Public Library.  True crime, women’s history, women’s library history, sexism (UGH, the sexism in library!  The sexism!),  library history, world library history, homelessness, arrogance, death, legacy, love, eccentric patrons, eccentric librarians, fire history, book conservation, and that’s like, the first half.  Orlean’s way with words is never tortured or cliche, but awes you with its simple complexity.  One of my favorite lines describes the library fire to a monster eating chips.

If you’ve ever stepped into a library, even just to use the loo, place your hold now with your local library.  And oh, be nice to your librarians.

Readalikes: The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer (NF)
The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne (NF)
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (F)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (F)
Party Girl dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer (film, starring Parker Posey)

 

Librarian’s Pick of the Week: Jonesy: Nine Lives on the Nostromo

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (or seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

Jonesy: Nine Lives on the Nostromo by Rory Lucey (2018)

Why: When you look up “adorable” in the dictionary, this graphic novel is the tippey tops.  The author/illustrator Rory Lucey retells the film classic Alien from the point of view of Jones the cat, affectionately referred to as Jonesy by his human friends, and what he actually may be doing during the siege.

What follows is an imaginative foray into the life of your typical not-shit-giving feline as he nonchalantly licks his behind while those around him get skewered.  Author Lucey does a fantastic job of capturing the common thread that connects all cats: their sense of wonder, fun, cuddly warmth, and head butts that can quickly transform from ear-shattering motor purrs to a sudden nip on the nose.  The illustrations are a sheer delight as you focus in (glasses, people) on the finer details of each picture and compare them to the scenes in the film, except here you see the little tips of orange ears curiously sniffing at an alien.  What also makes this retelling so captivating is that unlike the film, wonderful and horrific in its own right, the graphic novel inserts a sense of whimsy and joy, enabling you to re-imagine each scene through the eyes of a curious kitty.

This would also be a perfect holiday or birthday gift for anyone who both loves cats and horror films, and is obviously an especially amazing human.

Banned Books Week-Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

What is Banned Books Week anyway? “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.” *

To this day, “don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by for you may be the next to die…” still dances in my brain at random moments.  Having grown up in a funeral home, I knew this held no validity but still felt that thrill of the forbidden, the unknown.  Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was a staple in my and my family’s collective experience during childhood, and may also be the reason we’re all extremely morbid adults.  Who knows?

The American Library Association conducted a study from 1990-1999** of the most commonly challenged books–guess who was #1 for a decade?

Why the most frequent challenges?  My guess is that Schwartz’s lighthearted treatment towards death and all that nitty-gritty, such as rot (specifically humans), worms, corpses, et al, commonly introduced to younger audiences is a lot for the general public to welcome, especially given our pervasive avoidance of the topic of death.  More specifically, according to the Intellectual Freedom Blog via The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association*** by way of the Banned Books Resource Guide, the reasons are commonly cited as:

  • “too scary and violent”
  • “too morbid for children”
  • “shows the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and satanism”
  • “cannibalism”
  • “unrealistic view of death”
  • “cause children to fear the dark”
  • “cause children to have nightmares”

You know what?  All of the above is true!  The stories are morbid, they do discuss death, and who didn’t fear the dark as a child?  Luckily, parents have the choice as to whether or not to allow their small children to read them, but do not have the right to make that decision for everyone else who patronizes their local library.

*https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/
**http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990%E2%80%931999
***https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=7631

Last Five Books

The last five books that I’ve read-typically independent and off the beaten path.

Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone (2018)

(3rd and final of the Hatching Trilogy.  ancient & hungry spiders are unearthed and eat their way across the globe in terrifying & amusing ways. well-written, fun, smart, well-developed characters.  highly recommend the audio version.)

The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford (2017)

(a highly enjoyable shorter novel detailing three friends post-high school tangling with the darker forces of nature, the past, skeletons, and haunted people and places.  humorous, compulsively readable and original.  great novel to throw in your bag before a flight.)

No Excuses Detox: 100 Recipes to Help You Eat Healthy Every Day by Megan Gilmore (2017)

(accessible clean-eating.  appetizing, whole food recipes with everyday ingredients.  the spaghetti squash pad thai is heaven.  muffins made with cashew butter & no flour of any kind-it can only be sneaky sorcery that makes them so GD delicious.)

Self-Care for the Real World by Nadia Narain & Katia Narain Phillips (2018)

(down-to-earth life lessons & suggestions on how to discover what self-care means to the individual reader.  a book you buy and leave next to your bed.)

The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir  (2017)

(icelandic thriller weaving two stories from decades apart.  unconventional story, unexpected twists, & engrossing characters.  shocking, unpredictable ending.  the audio narration is wonderful.)

 

 

Librarian’s Pick of the Week: The Unrepentant Cinephile by Jason Coffman

Library patrons are always asking me, “what have you read (sometimes seen) lately that you loved?”  This is what I loved this week.

The Unrepentant Cinephile: Collected Reviews of Cult,                                                   Exploitation, Horror and Independent Films by Jason Coffman

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.

Feminist Short Stories: Horror & Sci-Fi (Part 3)

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.

Eau-De-Eric
Manuela Saragosa

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
Kelly Link

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 
Anne Richter

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.