Last Five Books

Hello! It’s been TWO YEARS since my last post. Unlike some, including my spouse who somehow was able to read the most that he’d ever read in his life, I was unable to read or listen for the entirely of the pandemic. (Pandemic-ish? We’re still in it.) My brain froze, and what little concentration I could muster was expended on figuring out how to work and be at least somewhat of a good boss from home. Within the last two months, “hello, brain!” It’s (kind of) back.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

At 39, I have joined my first official book club. It may be shocking to read this, being that I am a librarian, but I am a selfish one and guard my time like a precious, tasty snack. The Paper Palace was the club’s first title and I listened on audiobook, which has a fantastic narrator. In a nutshell: affluent, dysfunctional WASPS unite. It’s a true, solid book club read. Lots to discuss and dissect about class, marriage, abuse, family, sisterhood/siblinghood (the parts with her sister were my absolute favorite of the book), mother/daughter relationships, and sometimes curious sex. A few scenes left us pondering, how can this sex be done? How would this happen? In all, it’s chock-full of all the good guts that make up a spirited discussion.

While reflecting on the seemingly constant ups and downs of the main character’s life, a memory floated up from when I interviewed Aimee Nezhukumatathil about her fabulous nature diary/autobiography, World of Wonders. She told a fascinating story about how her now hugely popular book was rejected by several publishers because it lacked drama and/or conflict. She got along with her mom, she loved her husband, she delighted in fireflies. If those elements are indeed the common criteria for major publishers to even consider a title, it’s no surprise that The Paper Palace has been on so many best-of lists over the past year.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This book is a trip. Original; weird; unexpected; peculiar; very, “what the fuck is happening?” for much of the book. I truly delighted in reading a story where I had no clue what was happening, if I liked the narrator or not (I still have no clue), if I knew what the hell happened in the end or not. It kept me on my toes.

The story follows the main character, a woman in her 20s who decides to tap out of life for a year by plying herself with drugs and alcohol. She holes up in her apartment with the singular aspiration of sleeping for as much of the 365 days as possible. When she wakes in her foggy, drug-induced hazes, she finds herself participating in activities that are a mystery even to her in her more lucid states. Though published in 2018, this is the perfect pandemic read where it’s easy to identify with the character and her medicinal companions after our own two years of physical, mental and emotional solitude.

When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen

Chosen as one of the Stoker Award’s 2021 ballot finalists, When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen is at the top of my list (the winner will be chosen in 2022). I was enthralled from the beginning, following the story of three childhood best friends: Mira, Celine and Jesse, as we follow them from an incident in their childhood that takes place on an abandoned plantation through adulthood by way of flashbacks recalled by the main character, Mira. After the incident, the three friends part ways in the rural South, only to reunite when Celine, who’s white, plans to marry on the same plantation from decades ago. The plantation has since been turned into an extravagant wedding destination, despite it’s history of slavery and the ghosts that still remain at the plantation, which fuels the story of the tenuous friendship.

Author LaTanya McQueen weaves a tale that highlights nuance in a world that often seems to lack the boldness of delving into the grey areas of life. Much of the story is told through Mira’s internal monologue and we are privy to her confusion and consideration of deeds of the past and present; her past, the South’s past, and how those histories are ever present.

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

It was news to me that the Road of Bones is an actual place in Russia where a mass amount of prisoners of war were buried into the road, otherwise known as Kolyma Highway. Author Christopher Golden uses this real-life highway with its heartbreaking past, mixed with the severe temperatures of Siberia to create a desolate, desperate, dark and mythical place that places the reader in a mental solitude of their own as they become more and more immersed into the story.

I first learned of Golden’s writing when I read Ararat, where much like Road of Bones, Golden uses history and legend, in Ararat’s case, the story of a devil lurking in Noah’s Ark. His books are what I’d call beach reads for horror lovers; nothing too heavy but with clever plots and interesting characters that you hope to God don’t get killed off by an archaic creature awakened after thousands of years.

Smile by Sarah Ruhl

I didn’t want to read Smile. It was a memoir about a playwright who gets Bell’s palsy after having children. Not being a theatre type of gal, nor a children type of gal, I read it because I needed to lead a book club discussion at my library, and Ruhl also has Chicago ties. However, as book clubs often tend to do, I was delighted by a book that I was reticent to read but was so immensely glad that I did.

I listened to the audio, narrated by Ruhl herself, and if Ruhl ever chooses to stop writing plays and narrate audio going forward, the woman has a promising career. Though I’d never read or watched one of Ruhl’s plays, it’s plain to see that her experience with writing about the human condition, specifically that of the female kind, translated impeccably into the memoir genre. What amazed me was her incredible insight into her surroundings, her observations about life and how women are treated by society, men, other women, careers, et al. Her ability to put a spotlight on what seems mundane or matter of fact and make it seem as if it’s the most important point of discussion is truly a gift.

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: Ararat by Christopher Golden

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

Ararat by Christopher Golden

Why:  This is the perfect book for those wanting something a little different than the mainstream mystery that’s captivating and slightly unnerving with a lot of heart.  Set in modern day, a explorer-couple journeys 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 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)