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Readers’ Page

Readers’ Page

Book Reviews

Below are the past book reviews that have been posted on our Facebook page.

The hidden girl and other stories

The hidden girl and other stories

Ken Liu

I had only known Liu as the translator of Liu Cixin. I chose The Hidden Girl and Other Stories because I need more short stories and more science fiction in my life.

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Now that I’ve read him, I can announce: he’s not for me! His prose style, storytelling, and concepts are not my cup of tea.

Some things I did like: many of his characters are Asian or Asian-American, and many of his settings are in Asia. This is good variety for my Eurocentric diet. Women and girls in his stories are main characters, not sidekicks or love interests.

I don’t say this in a mean way: I think I would have loved the book when I was younger, before I became such a prose snob. Recommended for people who don’t hyper-focus on word choice, and who enjoy mind-expanding science fiction stories.

Click HERE to find it in the catalog .

Everything's Eventual

Everything’s eventual: 14 dark tales

Stephen King

I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s collections of short stories chronologically by pub date. I’ve finally reached a personal milestone with Everything’s Eventual (2002), the first collection that came out after I graduated high school. This means I didn’t read and re-read and re-re-read it as a teen.

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I’m no King scholar, and right now I’m not feeling the energy to open his Wikipedia page to apply basic critical thinking skills. It is a hot July afternoon with no air conditioning as I type this. So this is a completely unsubstantiated claim, but it feels like the early 2000s marked the time when King sloughed off the mantle of horror writer. This collection contains a mix of genres, from spooky supernatural to moody fantasy to quirky realistic fiction.

That said, my favorite short story in the collection is “1408,” about a haunted hotel room. Twenty years ago, it was bar none the scariest story I’d ever read. It didn’t pack the same punch this time around, but for those of you who’ve never read it, Everything’s Eventual is worth checking out for this story alone.

Click HERE to find it in the catalog .

Billy Budd

Billy Budd

Herman Melville

For this week I’ve selected a title that is sure to get strong engagement: the novella Billy Budd (unfinished at the time of Herman Melville’s death in 1891, and published in 1924). Don’t every comment at once!

Okay, real talk: Outside of a classroom or book group, I don’t think people should read books they don’t like. Life’s too short. After you leave school, you never have to read another classic if you don’t want to.

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I myself tend toward popular fiction and nonfiction, like most people who read for pleasure, but I sprinkle the occasional classic into my diet. Sometimes the book is a joy to read. Look how many Jane Austen fans there are. People aren’t reading her out of a sense of obligation.

(Granted, I’m not one of them. I read Pride and Prejudice and I am not the right audience for Austen. Miss me with Mr. Darcy. Give me Heathcliff. Give me Mr. Rochester.)

But sometimes I’ll read from the literary canon for other reasons. I like the challenge of reading prose from a different era. I like being familiar with enduring cultural touchstones. I like immersing myself in a different time and place.

I can’t say that Billy Budd is a new favorite, but for an entry fee of fewer than four hours of audiobook listening, I know a little more about my country’s literary history. And now if people ask if I’ve read Moby-Dick, I’ll be able to say “No, but I’ve read Billy Budd.”

Young William Budd is an exceptionally attractive seaman. Melville mentions his physical beauty every third line or so. Though impressed into service by the royal navy, Billy does not resent his lot. He has a docile, compliant, pure personality that reminds me of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. He is well-liked by everyone on his ship except John Claggart, the scheming Master-at-arms, who resents Billy’s angelic good looks.

Spoiler alert–

–Billy accidentally kills Claggart. It is manslaughter at worst. The sole witness, Captain Vere, knows Billy didn’t mean to, and Claggart had it coming anyway. BUT HE STILL SENTENCES BILLY TO HANG.

I don’t know what lesson Melville wants me to take from this. Captain Vere feels terrible about sending Billy to his death, but he claims his duty is to the king. He is the ultimate by-the-book cop.

Maybe Melville wants us to understand that mercy is more important than justice. Or maybe Melville thinks duty is the most important virtue, and Captain Vere is the real hero of the story. I was an English major, but I have no idea.

I was also a Women’s Studies major, but I do not go around reading everything through a feminist or queer lens. Honest. But this was about the gayest book I have ever read. Melville reminds us that Billy is attractive more than I tell my dog he is the handsomest boy, which is several times per hour. Not only is Billy the living embodiment of Adonis, every last person on the ship is enchanted by Billy (except for that jerk Claggart. Who dies.)

I listened to the audiobook as narrated by Stefan Rudnicki. Just between us, he’s not the greatest narrator, but I just love his voice. I seek out his narrations for the same reason people watch Winona Ryder. She’s not the world’s great gift to acting, but she is very pretty and she seems nice.

If you search “Billy Budd” in the library catalog, you’ll get a bunch of results. That’s because each individual edition has a separate entry. Same book, but someone wrote a different preface? That’s a new catalog record! I’m including the link for the e-audiobook, but there are plenty of other options. 

Click HERE to go to the e-audiobook.

Popular Websites
Fantastic Fiction: Bibliographies for over 30,000 authors.
 
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Flavorwire: “50 Books To Make You More Interesting”
 
 
Modern Library: 100 Best Novels
 
National Public Radio: Reader’s Pick the Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Books
 
Flavorwire: “50 Mystery Novels Everyone Should Read”
 
AV Club: Best Books of the ’00s.
 
The Guardian: Reader’s Pick the Ten Best Short Story Collections
 
Online Literature
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Past Book Talks

Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, is a science fiction/fantasy blend and gosh, it is good. About a third of the way through, I flipped to the back to the author photo, thinking to myself: Please, please at least let her be ugly. No luck. She’s very pretty, and younger than me, and she’s a really good storyteller. How is this fair.

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I only need four words for plot summary, and those four words are:

“Lesbian Necromancers in Spaaaaaaaaace!”

The book is a twisty turny story with some excellent plotting. It is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, at times even reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. It also reminded me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.

The ending caught me by surprise, so much so that I went and purchased the sequel AS WELL AS THIS BOOK, THE ONE I BORROWED FROM THE LIBRARY. I am very frugal and I’m trying to get rid of things, not add more stuff, but sometimes a book deserves a place in your personal collection.

I read the print version, and I think I’m glad I did, because there are a thousand important details to try to keep track of. I did a lot of page flipping to go back and re-read important sections. But I’ve heard from friends that the audio narration is excellent.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Fuzz

Fuzz

Mary Roach

Mary Roach writes one specific type of book, over and over again. She takes a peculiar topic and presents it in a way that is both detailed and strangely hilarious. She first tried this approach in her debut, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and has continued with various books on quirky topics.

Her most recent book is Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, about the interactions between humans and wildlife. Topics range from poisonous plants and their use in bioterrorism (ricin comes from the humble castor bean) to the practical difficulties of administering birth control to populations of wild monkeys in India.

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I will confess that, prior to reading this book, I had not considered the amount of effort the Vatican puts toward controlling seagulls, whose droppings are not welcome at holy celebrations such as Easter.

Does anyone remember the short, syndicated feature newspapers used to run–I think it was called Weird Facts, something like that–back before we had the internet? If you were someone who looked forward to that daily hit of bizarre trivia, Mary Roach is probably right for you.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Hotel Neversink

The Hotel Neversink

Adam O’Fallon Price

I don’t read much contemporary literary fiction, but The Hotel Neversink had enough genre elements to catch my attention. It is a historical novel, spanning most of the twentieth century into the present day; it is set at a haunted hotel; and there series of murders and disappearances over the decades.

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Also I’ve followed Adam O’Fallon Price on Twitter for years, which makes us practically best friends, so I was obligated.

The story follows the Sikorsky family, who start as dirt-poor Jews in Eastern Europe before emigrating to Neversink, New York, where they purchase a grand old hotel. They mostly succeed in transforming it into a Catskills resort destination, but the reputation is tarnished by the deaths and disappearances of several children.

While the whodunnit element is ever present, this is a character-driven book. There’s an ensemble cast of characters, ranging from members of the core family–like Jeanie Sikorsky, the business-minded matriarch–to hotel employees like Detective Javits, who is good at identifying sticky-fingered maids, less good at identifying murderers.

Be aware that there are scenes of sex and violence, including one non-traditional rape scene and a self-harm episode. With that in mind, this is a fine choice for readers of literary fiction. Price has a gift for fleshing out the good and bad in his characters. It also works well for readers like me, who like a book with a high body count.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

The House in the Cerulean Sea

T. J. Klune

Linus Baker is age 40, a bit thick about the middle, with no romantic prospects and one naughty house cat.  As a petty functionary at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, he is shocked when he receives a highly classified assignment: he is to observe a remote orphanage for one month, and then recommend whether it should remain open or be closed forever.

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The children are out of the ordinary, even by magical standards. There is Sal, for instance, a teenage boy who turns into a Pomeranian when frightened, and Chauncey, of indeterminate species, and Lucy (short for Lucifer), a young boy whose father is the devil. And then there is Headmaster Arthur Parnassus, as mysterious as he is handsome.

T.J. Klune is an inventive and funny writer. I kept snorting when I read passages like this one: “Ms. Jenkins reached his desk, her mouth a thin line. As was her wont, she appeared to have applied her makeup rather liberally in the dark without the benefit of a mirror.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea is a delightful story that features a gentle gay romance, all very chaste. Happy Pride Month! And more than anything it is a fantasy novel about outcast kids and accepting each other when we don’t fit the mold, whether you’re overweight like Linus Baker or a sentient green blob like Chauncey.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Silver Arrow

The Silver Arrow

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman is one of my favorite writers for adults–the character Julia from his Magicians trilogy resonates with me on a cellular level–so I decided to try his children’s novel, The Silver Arrow.

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Kate, 11, and her brother Tom, 8, unexpectedly find themselves in charge of conducting a magical train. The passengers are animals, and it is up to Kate and Tom to lead them safely to their destinations.

In many ways it is a familiar fantasy novel. There are adventures, and talking animals, and sentient trains. But there is a level of melancholy I was not expecting. For instance, Kate must leave the endangered baby pangolin in a holding spot, away from the planet, until the world’s habitats are restored to safety. That scene got me weepy.

The story overall ends on a good note, but it’s not “and they lived happily ever after.” Instead, Kate and Tom learn that being human means being responsible for the well-being of the world’s animals.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Pursuit of William Abbey

The Pursuit of William Abbey

Claire North

The titular character of The Pursuit of William Abbey is a doctor, a white Englishman ministering to charity cases in Africa in the late 19th century. He does this not from purity of heart but to pay off gambling debts, and when he witnesses the brutal lynching of a local teenager, he does nothing to stop it. For this failure to act, an onlooker curses Dr. Abbey to be pursued by the dead boy’s ghost. When the ghost gets near, Dr. Abbey becomes a conduit for the truth, helpless against speaking the inner secrets of everyone he meets. And that is how the doctor becomes a spy for the English.

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I like recommending Claire North to people who are leery of science fiction and fantasy. There’s enough depth and character development to appeal to literary readers, and enough gun fights and mad scientists for the genre readers. Be advised that the book contains quite a few violent scenes, so it is not appropriate for everyone. And props to Peter Kinney, the audiobook narrator, for handling a ton of accents, which is one of the hazards of narrating an international spy thriller.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

All Systems Red

All Systems Red

Martha Wells

Manufactured from mechanical parts as well as organic material, Martha Wells’s Murderbot is a robot who provides security to humans in dangerous situations. With its high-tech armor, an advanced understanding of data and security, and a mix of projectile and energy weapons, Murderbot excels at keeping people alive, though it has a dark secret: it really just wants to watch soap operas.

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Murderbot is a delightful main character across five novellas and one novel. I inhaled them as audiobooks, narrated by Kevin R. Free, who does a magnificent job bringing alive this awkward, stubborn, lovable protagonist.

Now it is true that I got lost during some of the more technical explanations, but I don’t know how to change the oil in my car, so I am maybe not the best judge of whether science fiction is comprehensible to the average reader. Anyway it doesn’t matter, because the character development and action scenes carry the story. I lost track of how often I laughed out loud, and there was one scene in the third book where I had to park my car and sob.

These books build on one another, so read them in order. The first is All Systems Red, about a group of academics scouting out a new planet.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m working my way through the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, who takes your emotions into a deserted alley and beats them to a pulp.

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My favorite Ishiguro so far is Remains of the Day, coming in barely ahead of The Buried Giant. In a very respectable third place is Klara and the Sun, told from the point of view of an Artificial Friend named Klara. At the start of the novel, Klara lives with a group of other robots at a department store, waiting to be chosen and purchased by a child. That child turns out to be Josie, a teenager with a mysterious illness.

Pretty much all the humans will let you down: they are selfish, superficial, and self-interested. But Klara is a delightful person. I was particularly charmed by her religious beliefs. As a solar-powered robot, she worships the sun and prays to him for help.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score is about the lingering impact of trauma. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist with decades of experience, describes how trauma can affect our emotional and physical health, sometimes years after the fact.

I learned a ton from this book:

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–not all traumas create similar effects. Experiencing an earthquake is different from military combat is different from sexual assault.

–Trauma is bad at any age, but in general, the younger the victim, the bigger the impact.

–the body might respond to trauma with mental illness (such as anxiety or depression) or with physical illness (such as cancer).

One of van der Kolk’s big lessons is that we need to treat the underlying cause, not just the symptoms. If you develop ulcers because of trauma, you should treat the ulcers, but you should also work with a good counselor to understand and treat the trauma.

Pharmaceuticals and talk therapy are the best-known treatments for trauma, but the book goes into detail on other treatments, including yoga, theater, and EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

Though the book is written for a popular audience, it is not easy. At times the writing is dry, and the footnotes are extensive. And of course the subject matter is difficult. Before reading this book, I did not understand how common incest is. Odds are, I surely know people who survived childhood sexual abuse from a relative. All of us know someone who survived that. We just might not realize it.

So it is a difficult book but worth the effort.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog

Thomas Savage

Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog is a Western, published in 1963 and set in the 1920s. I was unaware of it till last year, when Jane Campion won an Oscar for Best Director for her film adaption…. though that’s not exactly what put it on my radar. That only happened when actor Sam Elliott criticized the movie for “allusions of homosexuality.”

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The two Burbank brothers, George and Phil, are wealthy ranch owners in 1920s Montana. George is no intellectual, but he is a kind and decent man. Phil is an arrogant bully, but he is brilliant, talented, and charismatic. They’re both at the start of middle age when George upends life on the ranch by marrying Rose, a widow with a teenage son, Peter. Phil takes this as an invitation to make the newcomers miserable.

One scene particularly impressed me. George and Rose are hosting a dinner party for the governor and his wife, and the conversation is tedious in the extreme. Just reading the scene made me squirm. Then Rose tries to salvage the evening by playing the piano, but she’s so nervous she can’t remember any songs. It was acutely uncomfortable to read. This is my backhanded way of complimenting Thomas Savage.

His marriage to a woman notwithstanding, author Thomas Savage was a gay man. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t speak to the screen adaptation or Sam Elliott’s concerns, but I can say that the Phil Burbank character is gay (though whether he acknowledges this to himself is unclear) and so is Peter, the teenager. The book revolves around themes of masculinity and sexuality.

But if you are looking for titillation, this is not your book. It is extremely chaste. Readers may wish to avoid it due to some scenes of violence and casual racism, but the racy parts won’t cause problems because there ARE no racy parts.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Divergent Mind

Divergent Mind

Jenara Nerenberg

I’d sought out a psychologist to help me understand what’s going on in my brain. She came back with “I don’t know, you’re a tough one. Maybe autism? But you don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.” She was stumped, but she encouraged me to explore the topic on my own. Which I could have done anyway and saved myself a ton of money.

Anyway she recommended the book Divergent Mind, by Jenara Nerenberg. It’s about neurodiversity, especially in women, who are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The book focuses on five types of neurodiversity: Autism, ADHD, Synesthesia, Sensory Processing Disorder, and Highly Sensitive Person (I don’t think there’s an adjective version of that last one.)

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It’s an informative book. I say this as someone who is already knowledgeable about neurodivergence and mental illness. (Note that autism and other types of neurodiversity are differences, not diseases per se.) It helped me better understand how to recognize neurodiversity and how to work with neurodiverse people. It’s important to me, not only for myself, but so we can make the library a more accessible place for neurodivergent people. That’s one of the reasons we installed a sensory wall in Youth Services last month. It’s fun for kids of all ages, neurotypical and neurodivergent alike… but it’s especially important for kids who need extra stimulus. That’s a common need for neurodiverse people.

I also learned about treatments and therapies, such as learning to listen for your own heartbeat, which can help ground people in their bodies. While neurodiversity is not a pathology, it can be difficult to function in spaces and relationships that don’t accommodate neurodiverse people.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

Stephen Dunning

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle . . . and Other Modern Verse was compiled by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith way back in 1966. So, the term, “modern” is relative!

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However, I believe the 114 poems contained within are timeless. Ultra-famous poets like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, and e. e. cummings are sprinkled in with many lesser-known poets to create a wonderful book filled with eclectic poetry. This is a perfect book to introduce poetry to middle school and high school students because almost every style of writing is represented. I first read it when I was in high school. To this day I can still recite some of my favorite poems! (Well, the shorter ones, anyway!)

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

True Crime Story

True Crime Story

Joseph Knox

True Crime Story centers on the disappearance of Zoe Nolan, a student in her first semester of college. Author Joseph Knox presents the novel as though he were an investigator interviewing the people in Zoe’s life: her twin sister, her parents, her boyfriend, her flatmates, and various others. It’s an unconventional approach, coming across more like an oral history than a murder mystery.

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Knox has a gift for character development. In a format like this, he doesn’t like to rely on setting details. He can’t refer to a character as having sad eyes, can’t describe someone as pacing a room nervously. The entire story rests on the words that come out of the characters’ mouths, and it’s amazingly effective. The results is a quirky book that flies by, with a culprit I did not see coming.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

The Wizards of Once

The Wizards of Once

Cressida Cowell

The Wizards of Once is the first in a series by Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon books. It’s a children’s fantasy novel with lots of adventure and questing and magical objects. The main characters are Wish, a girl from a nation of warriors who despise magic; Xar, who embarrassingly has not developed magic yet, despite being the son of a powerful wizard; and Bodkin, who tries to be a good bodyguard to Wish, though he suffers from a medical condition whereby he falls asleep when he gets scared.

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To my adult sensibilities the book is fine but not remarkable…

…but the audiobook is brilliant, just amazingly good, and that is because it is narrated by my boyfriend, David Tennant (whose roles include Dr. Who and Crowley in Good Omens). You all keep forgetting that David Tennant is my boyfriend and that is very disrespectful, please do better.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

When Things Fall Apart

When Things Fall Apart

Pema Chödrön

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, originally published in 1996, is a modern classic in spirituality and personal growth. Author Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun, and though she draws from Buddhist teachings, readers do not need to be Buddhist or religious to appreciate the writing. For instance:

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“Death in everyday life could also be defined as experiencing all the things that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out.″

or:

“Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.”

The entire book is like that: short essays with passages that invite reflection and contemplation. Even if you only have time to read an essay before bed or on your lunch break, you can probably get through the whole book before it’s due back at the library.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

She Kills Me

She Kills Me

Jennifer Wright

I loved Jennifer Wright’s book Get Well Soon, about the history of plagues. It’s my first volley anytime someone says they don’t enjoy reading nonfiction. Although She Kills Me is not as good, it’s a nice quick read that serves as a palate cleanser between other books, which is an odd thing to say about a book filled with gruesome murders: specifically, gruesome murders committed by women throughout history. Happy Women’s History Month!

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Some of the women were familiar to me, like Susan Atkins (one of the Manson murderers) and Lizzie Borden with her axe. Others I had not heard of, like Delphine LaLaurie, whose savagery toward her slaves was remarkable even in New Orleans in the early 19th century.

I don’t normally describe True Crime as breezy, but Wright uses an easy tone with light humor, and never spends more than a few pages with any one murderer.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Circe

Circe

Madeline Miller

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here’s Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, which brings to life the story of a minor figure from ancient myth. You may remember Circe as the sorceress who turned Odysseus’s crew into swine. If you don’t remember, that’s okay. Mythology in tenth-grade English is a distant memory for me, but I had no trouble following along.

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Circe is a working-class hero. She is unremarkable among the other gods, except for her voice, which everyone agrees is ugly. She’s the butt of jokes among the other gods. She’s not especially powerful or beautiful or clever. When she is exiled to an island, it’s not much of a punishment, because she finally has the time to work with her herbs without anybody picking on her.

I struggled a little bit with the prose. Miller’s style is a touch too fancy for me. If you write “Bold, he was” rather than “He was bold,” I need a good reason for it. It sounds artificial, and it draws me out of the story. This is my criticism of much of the style of literary fiction.

But Miller doesn’t go overboard with the literary affectations, and unlike many of her literary peers, she writes a story with a page-turning plot. I’m delighted to recommend the book, with the warning that there’s one scene of sexual violence (portrayed with sensitivity) and lots of other scenes of violence, some of them gory.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

Caste The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson

Gotta be honest, it’s been hard for me to focus on reading with the Ukraine invasion in the news, but I will try to focus and talk about the book I finished listening to, because it is very good and deserves to be widely read… not that I can compete with Oprah, who already told everyone to read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, in which Isabel Wilkerson compares American racism to the Third Reich in Nazi Germany and to the caste system in India.

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Wilkerson blends social science, history, and personal experience to illuminate the workings of caste. Of the many unsettling things I learned, this one takes the cake: lynchings in the Jim Crow South were such public spectacles that they helped popularize the post card as a convenient way to share images and news.

So I can’t quite say it’s a pleasure to read the book, but I can say that it was engaging and illuminating, and I recommend it unreservedly.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. Du Bois

For Black History Month, I want to talk about a seminal work of African American history: The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Quick PSA: Du Bois does not rhyme with Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire. It rhymes with The Choice.

I had only read Du Bois in excerpt, not as a whole book, and now I understand why. His writing does not lend itself to quick consumption. He is very, very thinky, and his prose is firmly in the tradition of the late 19th/early 20th century construction.

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The Souls of Black Folk is a collection of essays and one short story. The essays are broadly sociological, at times sidling up to history, philosophy, memoir, and, in the final selection, music criticism. This last one is charming. Du Bois keeps apologizing for not being a music critic, but he’s such a fanboy of Black songs he can’t help himself.

The one piece of fiction was sensational melodrama. Let us not speak of it.

As for the nonfiction: Du Bois is a seminal thinker and writer in American history. I am glad I finally read him, though I regret consuming the book all at once. I should have spread it out. The essays I enjoyed most were centered on people: the people he met while teaching in Tennessee, and the essay on the loss of his infant son.

Of the Black intellectuals I have read, Du Bois is in some ways the most important, but he is not the most accessible.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Comfort Me with Apples

Comfort Me with Apples

Catherynne M. Valente

As a committed Valentine’s Day hater, let’s talk this week about Comfort Me with Apples, a psychological thriller novella by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s about a perfect woman who is a perfect wife. She and her husband live in a house governed by an HOA, and it does not take long for the reader to notice that something is rotten, though it takes a while to figure out what, exactly.

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There are some strong Stepford Wives parallels here, and like everything I’ve read by Valente, there are feminist themes running through the story–though in this case, the main character is not strong or opinionated or spirited. She is docile and pliant, hardly someone you’d expect to stand up for herself.

While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Valente’s Deathless (featuring Russian folklore against the backdrop of the Communist Revolution), I always appreciate a story of female rage, and this one was a nice quick read, just over 100 pages.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

How the Word Is Passed

How the Word Is Passed

Clint Smith

Just in time for Black History Month, I read Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America. It is a standout book. Smith seeks to understand the history and legacy of slavery by visiting six locations in the United States: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation, The Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, and New York City, and one location overseas: Gorée Island in Senegal.

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I often give up on history nonfiction because of the dryness of the writing. This is anything but dry. Smith was a poet before he became a historian, and his writing brings alive the real people, past and present, who grapple with the reverberations of enslavement across generations.

p.s. Smith narrates the audiobook. I liked it fine. He doesn’t pretend to be a voice actor–women’s voices sound exactly like men’s voices–but it gets the job done.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

Maus

Maus

Art Spiegelman

You’ve probably heard about the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, that voted 10-0 to remove Maus from the 8th grade curriculum. (I had a friend in Australia ask me about it, so the decision has made international news.) The decision inspired me to revisit both volumes: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus: And Here My Troubles Began, both of which I re-read over the weekend. They are both graphic novels–books told with pictures and words, in the style of comic books–though “novel” is misleading in this case, since they are works of nonfiction.

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Art Spiegelman centers the memoir around his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew who is sent to Auschwitz. The combination of pictures and words, the mix of past and present, makes for an accessible story. You don’t have to be a scholar or a history buff to appreciate the books… but they are essential to understanding the Holocaust. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Spiegelman’s writing affected me more than Anne Frank’s diary or Elie Wiesel’s Night. Maus is essential reading.

Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale

Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Anne Fadiman

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997), by Anne Fadiman, is a stellar example of narrative nonfiction. I read it a few years ago, before I knew I’d move to Wausau, a locus of the Hmong diaspora. (The Hmong, pronounced “Mong,” are a group of people indigenous to China and Southeast Asia.) Though I’ve forgotten some of the details by now, I want to talk about the book, since one of its themes has renewed importance: the divide between doctors and the patients they treat.

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Fadiman centers the story around Lia Lee, who is a toddler when she gets her first seizure, and her parents, immigrants who relocated to the United States as refugees from Vietnam. Lia’s parents and doctors are invested in treating her epilepsy, but the process is complicated by language and cultural divides. How do you arrive promptly for an appointment when you normally set your watch by when the cock crows?

This book covers so much: Hmong culture, Western medicine, immigration and resettlement, America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and childcare. Though twenty-five years have passed since its first publication, I recommend it enthusiastically, even to people who normally avoid nonfiction.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The 10,000 Doors of January

The 10,000 Doors of January

Alix E Harrow

Alix E. Harrow made her debut in 2019 with The 10,000 Doors of January, a fantasy novel about travel between worlds. The point-of-view character is January Scaller, a girl living in early twentieth century Vermont with her caretaker, Mr. Locke, a wealthy man who collects unusual artifacts. January does not know her mother, and her father is mostly absent, off scouring the world for valuable items to bring back to Locke House. She is isolated and friendless, living under the strict rules of Mr. Locke, and people treat her as an oddity because of her reddish-brown skin color.

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But when she learns about the portals to other worlds, she trades the tedium for a life of adventures. It’s hard to go into detail without major spoilers, but there are a lot of fun plot elements: a shadowy cabal of evil archaeologists, knife fights, chase scenes, enchanted objects, and a budding romance.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

Demystifying Disability

Demystifying Disability

Emily Ladau

I read Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally for two reasons. One, just in general, I would prefer not to be a jerk. I’m a kind person, but kind people can be inadvertent jerks when they act in ignorance. Second, as a library director, I want to build collections, design spaces, and create programs that are as accessible as possible.

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The book is a quick read, 150 pages if you don’t count the end matter. It is a popular rather than scholarly work, and Emily Ladau uses a breezy style. I was able to read the whole thing in two days, just by reading a few pages at a time, here and there.

It’s a beginner’s guide, and some of the ideas were familiar to me already, but I learned some useful things. For instance, if you want to get a deaf person’s attention, a good way is to step into their line of sight, which avoids the potentially awkward alternative of laying your hand on their arm. And some people in the deaf community capitalize it, capital-D Deaf… so if you’re corresponding with a deaf person, ask their preference or follow their lead.

Recommended for people new to Disability Studies and readers who enjoy a chatty, conversational writing style.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library

Matt Haig

The start of the new year is the right time for The Midnight Library, a book about life choices and regrets. A 30-something woman, on the brink of death, finds herself transported to a mystical library where every book is a version of an alternate life. By picking different books, she gets to sample her existence in different realities: the one where she married her fiance instead of dumping him, the one where she became a rock star, the one where she moved to Norway to study glaciers.

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The main character irritated me at times. Oh, being an Olympic champion swimmer wasn’t satisfying enough for you? Running a Californian vineyard with a loving husband left you with a touch of ennui? You poor darling.

But the book does a great job diving into the illusion of time and the chance to re-live experiences. I recommend it for people who liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North; Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson; and Replay, by Ken Grimwood.

It’s also a good choice for people who like literary fiction with just a hint of genre, such as Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Joanne M. Harris

Joanne M. Harris’s book Honeycomb is something a little different, a collection of linked micro-stories, in the range of two to five pages each, and that’s counting the illustrations by Charles Vess. They are fairy tales told in the familiar style (“Once there was a prince…”), but with characters and worlds who are unfamiliar. For starters, the royalty are all insects. They sometimes choose to take human form, but the movers and shakers are all cockroaches and bees and lacewings.

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I enjoyed the book, quite a lot. Like the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, the stories here are told in a plain style but cover some dark territory, cruelty and murder and abuse, before getting to the happily ever after.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

I read A Christmas Carol, and do you know what, I think this is my first time reading Dickens cover to cover? My class read some excerpts from Great Expectations in tenth grade, but this is my first time reading an entire Dickens novel, and I’d like to read more.

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I knew the story already, as do most people who grew up in America. I had some misgivings about a Muppet-free version, but it’s quite a nice experience even without Gonzo in a top hat. I was surprised in the book that Scrooge saw the error of his stingy ways with the first ghost. He didn’t really need Christmas Present and Christmas Future. Christmas past was enough to teach him about generosity. (I’d apologize for the spoilers, but honestly, the book came out in 1843.)

It’s more a novella than a novel, so if you’d like something quick to put you in the Christmas spirit, this should do the trick. I’ve listed a few links below, but there are hundreds of entries in the catalog, so if these aren’t checked in, you should be able to find something.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

The Witching Hour

The Witching Hour

Anne Rice

Anne Rice died on Saturday at the age of 80, following complications from a stroke. She made a name for herself with gothic horror, brimming with sex and sensuality, though she also wrote erotica and Christian fiction. Interview with the Vampire was her best known book, but I got hooked on her as a teenager when I read The Witching Hour.

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Back then I thought it was brilliant. I was impressed by the New Orleans atmosphere and the sprawling, multi-multi-generational family saga. Last year I picked it up as a re-read, hoping to indulge in a nice book about witches murdering each other. It did not age well.

First: There is not a lot of consent going on with the sex. In addition to a ton of straight-up sexual assaults, Rice writes a lot of scenes where the main witch lady resists her demon suitor but eventually succumbs, rendered helpless by his sexy demon ways. It’s supposed to be arousing . It’s not. It’s gross.

Two: She’s fine with setting and atmosphere, but it’s not as remarkable as I recall.

Three: her prose is adequate but sometimes clunky, which is something you notice after 1,048 pages. Her dialogue is clumsy. The characters are distinct individuals until they start talking, and then they all sound the same.

So I can’t give a full-throttled endorsement to The Witching Hour, but there’s still a lot to admire. It’s an immersive experience. You follow the characters of one powerful witchy family through the centuries, and you keep turning the pages to see what wickedness they’re up to.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog

Every Heart A Doorway

Every Heart A Doorway

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire has been on my TBR for at least ten years, because she keeps winning awards for her books. I finally did something about it and listened to the novella Every Heart a Doorway.

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This is about the children who’ve returned from other worlds. Think Alice after she came back through the looking glass, or the Pevensies after they returned from Narnia. You’ve spent time in these fantastic foreign lands, then you get back to our world and no one believes you, so they cart you off to a boarding school where you can spend time among other children who have similar delusions.

It is a charming book. This is the first time I’ve ever described a horror novel as charming. I suppose it’s primarily a fantasy novel, but I’m also calling it horror, on account of all the gruesome murders. It’s a quick read, or for those of you who enjoy audio, it’s a quick listen.

Click HERE to find it on the catalog.

Why Bushwick Bill Matters

Charles L. Hughes

I just breezed through Why Bushwick Bill Matters, written by my close friend and Wausau native Charles Hughes, and please understand that “close friend” here means “I follow him on Twitter.”

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Bushwick Bill (1966-2019) was a member of The Geto Boys and easily the most successful short person in the history of popular music. I’m saying “short person” in keeping with the example set by the book, though you’ll have heard other, meaner language.

There’s a lot going on here: music history, biography, race, disability (plus additional disability after Bushwick Bill sorta shoots himself in the eye), culture war. I like free speech as much as the next person and probably more, but The Geto Boys had some truly odious lyrics. At one point I found myself nodding sympathetically with Tipper Gore, who even in the 90s was a terrible gatekeeper of musical culture.

This is not a long book. As Bushwick Bill reminds us: “large things come in very small packages.” And while it’s from a scholarly press, Hughes writes with an engaging style, more like what you’d expect in The Rolling Stone.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X

Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, convicted of the 1965 assassination of Malcom X, are expected to be exonerated after decades of wrongful imprisonment, so it seems a good time to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I had known Malcolm X was a controversial figure in the civil rights movement, but like most Americans, my high school education focused on the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-ins, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech—all the parts that are palatable to contemporary school boards. I did not know what to expect.

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Holy guacamole, this book. It should be standard reading. It is a vivid document of race and religion in the twentieth century, but it’s also a thumping good story. It was written by journalist Alex Haley, a formidable storyteller who would go on to write the novel Roots. Haley based the book on interviews he conducted with Malcolm X.

When he is a child, Malcolm’s father is murdered, his mother hauled off to a psych ward. After some time in the Michigan foster system, he goes to Boston to live with his sister Ella, who is such a charismatic figure that she nearly outshines Malcolm in his own autobiography.

The next few years are one big party, filled with alcohol and drugs. He takes a job shining shoes at a club, where he hears Peggy Lee when she first makes it big. He hangs out with his buddy Redd Foxx. He socializes with Billie Holiday, as one does. He takes his white girlfriend out dancing. He sells drugs. He robs rich people.

Inevitably he is caught, and it is in prison that he discovers the Nation of Islam. It transforms him. It is also in prison that he begins to read. He devours books, giving himself the education he never got in school.

After his release, he becomes a minister in the Nation of Islam. He teaches that white people are white devils. He opposes integration. He gains fame as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. For seven years he devotes himself to his religion, until he has a falling out with the leader, Elijah Muhammad.

And then he travels to Mecca and has an epiphany. On seeing faithful Muslims of all colors, he realizes that white people are not devils, or at least not all of them. He returns to America and begins teaching from this new place of understanding, though he struggles to shed his old reputation.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to give a book report, but there’s so much to discuss here.

I’m going to close with two passages. Both made me cry.

“My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get–to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree.”

“I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life’s account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Burglar

Thomas Perry

Thomas Perry is a mid-list crime writer. I wish he had more readers. His stories are more plot-driven, and less character-driven, than most books I like, but I keep coming back to him because I always learn something. In his books I have learned about forging birth certificates and sabotaging car engines and transferring large sums of money to foreign governments. Perry is so very thorough in his details that I’ll be using his novels as a handbook for committing crimes, if the librarian gig ever falls through.

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In The Burglar, I learned a lot about breaking and entering and fencing stolen goods. The main character is a young woman who burgles for a living. During one of her break-ins, she discovers three bodies, all murdered, presumably by a professional… and then the professional killer finds out and comes hunting for her.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Unknown

Recently I enjoyed Kazuo Ishiguro’s Arthurian novel The Buried Giant, in which Sir Gawain played a significant role, so I figured I should read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” even though, full disclosure, I don’t read a lot of medieval chivalric poetry.

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King Arthur and his knights are sitting around one day when a huge green man arrives uninvited. He offers a challenge: anyone may strike him a blow, but only if he can return the blow one year and one day in the future. A young Sir Gawain accepts the challenge and proceeds to chop off the green man’s head, which you expect would settle matters right there, only the beheaded fella picks up his severed head and pops it right back on, much the same way I reassembled my mutilated Barbies in my youth.

In the introduction to the audiobook, translator Simon Armitage explains that medieval poetry used alliteration rather than rhyming. He honors this tradition, even when he it forces him to introduce words that was not present in the original text: hence he uses “queen” and “quartz” to describe Guenevere and her eyes.

Contemporary audiences would have experienced the poem aloud, so I recommend the audiobook, narrated by Bill Wallis. It’s less than two hours to listen to the intro and the poem… and if you have another hour to spare, the remainder of the book is the poem narrated once again, only this time in Middle English. For readers who prefer print, the translator is none other than J. R. R. Tolkien.

Want to read it?

Request a copy in print

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A Grief Observed

C.S. Lewis

For several months I’ve been on strong fiction kick, but two of those novels (Lincoln in the Bardo and The Buried Giant) were so emotionally devastating that I turned to a classic piece of nonfiction to see if it could help me think about death and memory.

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C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed following the death of Joy Davidman, his wife of only three years. Lewis, famous then and now as a Christian apologist, wrestles with doubt and grief as he tries to find his new place in the world. His prose is thoughtful and contemplative, but his grief is intense. He is mad at God, albeit in a very polite sort of way.

I do not read much philosophy or religion, but I am glad I read this. It was only a few hours’ worth of listening as an audiobook, and it’s fewer than 100 pages in print.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Every Heart a Doorway

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire had been on my TBR for at least ten years, so I finally did something about it and listened to the novella Every Heart a Doorway. This is about the children who’ve returned from other worlds. Think Alice after she came back through the looking glass, or the Pevensies after they returned from Narnia.

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You’ve spent time in these fantastic foreign lands, then you get back to our world and no one believes you, so they cart you off to a boarding school where you can spend time among other children who have similar delusions.

It is a charming book. This is the first time I’ve ever described a horror novel as charming. I suppose it’s primarily a fantasy novel, but I’m also calling it horror, on account of all the gruesome murders. But, important note, though lots of people die in terrible ways, Seanan McGuire deliberately avoids writing about no sexual violence.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

A Lush and Seething Hell

John Hornor Jacobs

In honor of spooky season, this month I’m talking about horror. It is theoretically my second-favorite genre, right behind fantasy–theoretically, because I’m disappointed by almost every horror writer I read. Recently I have been underwhelmed by Stephen Graham Jones, Grady Hendrix, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. John Hornor Jacobs now joins the list with A Lush and Seething Hell, which collects two novellas. “The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky” is about a writer who translates some old poetry that was better left forgotten. “My Heart Struck Sorrow” is about the old blues song Stagger Lee. Perhaps you’ve heard it yourself? There’s an elusive verse about the titular character and how he spends his afterlife. The novella is about a music historian who goes in search of the verse.

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When reading these stories, I didn’t get emotionally engaged with the characters, and I certainly didn’t get scared (but only Stephen King has ever scared me, so that’s to be expected).

But I can definitely say some good things. Jacobs has good prose craft. If it’s a bit purple at times, I don’t mind. He’s still better at stringing words together than most writers. And while I read horror for emotional resonance, not grotesquerie, there’s a scene where a character gives herself a DIY eye-ectomy and it is masterfully done.

The book did not draw me in, but I have no severe criticisms, and I’m comfortable recommending it to anyone who enjoys horror.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Only Good Indians

Stephen Graham Jones

It’s spooky season, and today is Indigenous People’s Day, so this week I’m talking about The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. (And for audiobook listeners, the narrator is Shaun Taylor-Corbett, also of Native descent.)

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This was one of last year’s buzziest horror novels, and it garnered a ton of critical acclaim. It follows the story of four Indian men who were buddies in their younger days. Years later, one of them has died, and the others have grown apart, but a hunting incident from their past will bring them together again in very unpleasant ways. The elk depicted on the cover plays a significant role. If you have never put “elk” and “vengeance” in the same sentence, that is about to change.

I will confess that I personally didn’t take to the book, but I see why other people did, and I have no qualms suggesting it to other readers, with one big caveat: you must be able to tolerate gruesome violence, including violence against animals.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Road

Cormac McCarthy

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a gruesome story about the end of the world. I’m sure we’ve all imagined ourselves in these settings. When civilization collapses, I’ll be joining up with people who are proficient in arms, and in the long term, I’ll seek out farmers and gardeners. (I myself have zero practical skills, literally none, so I’m hoping the ragtag band of survivors will keep me on humanitarian grounds. Perhaps I should consider the strategy of my friend Ann, who plans to sprinkle herself in Tabasco so the zombies will eat her right away.)

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The thing is, when I daydream about heroically surviving the apocalypse based on wits alone, there’s always food around. I’m worried about aliens or contagions, not starving to death. But in McCarthy’s near-future hellscape, the world’s surviving humans have already picked over the stored food in grocery stores and home pantries, and nothing new will grow. There is no more agriculture, and there are no more animals. You can’t just pop into the woods to shoot a deer. And that means it’s hard to join forces with other people, because they may or may not be cannibals.

Cormac McCarthy is one of America’s best living writers, arguably the very best. I will take him over Jonathan Franzen any day. His themes are dark and violent, and his prose can be really difficult to get into, but The Road is uncharacteristically accessible. There are two main characters, a man and his son, and they spend their lives walking along a road, trying to find preserved food from the before times. It’s as bleak as it sounds.

This is a work of literary fiction as well as dystopic science fiction. I would also call it horror fiction; quite apart from the things I’ve already mentioned (cannibals, no food, mass death), there is one passage with a spooky old house that ranks up there with the scariest scenes in literature.

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The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

 

Have you read any of the top 10 most-challenged books of the year?
https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/
 
Number ten on that list is The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas and magnificently narrated by Bahni Turpin.

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I don’t read a lot of Young Adult. I do not have patience for teenagers describing their crushes or listing their musical preferences. I am grouchy and middle-aged. Nor do I read a lot of mainstream fiction. I like stories with spaceships and werewolves.

But you don’t have to be the target audience to appreciate a book. The Hate U Give is outstanding. The narrative centers around the death of a young black man, shot by a white police officer, told from the perspective of 16-year-old black girl, Starr, who witnesses the shooting. The book features believable characters, dramatic but realistic action, and thoughtful themes of race, class, crime, and violence.

I don’t care for message fiction, where an author hits you over the head with the theme and tells you what to think. That’s not the case here. For instance, when community riots break out, some of the characters participate in the violence and some of the others don’t. Angie Thomas doesn’t tell you who’s right or who’s wrong. She tells you why people make the choices they do, and it’s up to you to decide if they did the right thing.

And if you listen to audiobooks–or if you’re interested in trying one–this is such a good listen. Bahni Turpin does a range of different characters, and she packs so much emotion into Starr’s voice.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro

 

When The Buried Giant came out in 2015, I decided not to read it because of a tepid review. This was a mistake. It is such a lovely book. I badgered my mom into reading it before I was finished and now I would like to badger all of you. I might also note that, a couple of years after that ho-hum review, Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and they do not hand that out to just anyone.

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This is a fantasy set a few decades after the death of King Arthur, though it’s unlike any quest fantasy I’ve read. The main characters are an elderly couple of Britons, Axl and Beatrice, who leave the safety of home to go in search of their estranged son. The journey is only a few days’ walk, even at a slow pace with lots of breaks, and much of the plot development is just people talking. It’s got such a gentle, melancholy feel.

But there are scenes of violence and action and terror, and the final chapter, although not violent in a gory sense, left me reeling. I was so shaken I actually went on Reddit for answers. REDDIT, people. I was desperate.

David Horovitch does a fine job with the narration, if you enjoy audiobooks. I recommend The Buried Giant with great enthusiasm, but only if you’re okay with Kazuo Ishiguro roughing you up emotionally.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff

 

Like most people, you’ve probably wondered what would happen if someone mixed Jim Crow racism with eldritch horror but made it kind of wacky, more like Scooby Doo than H. P. Lovecraft. Matt Ruff has answered that question with Lovecraft Country, a series of interconnected short stories starring two Black families in 1950s Chicago.

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The hard part of the book is the full-throttle racism, which manifests as overt, Klan-style violence, as well as more subtle things like housing and employment discrimination. The easy part of the book is the horror. It’s filled with common horror elements (ghosts, creepy cultists, alien space monsters, animated dolls) but the atmosphere is campy rather than terrifying. That was my impression, at least, but your mileage may vary. I pretty much don’t get scared by horror novels.

Matt Ruff’s writing feels fresh and inventive, with fun characters and ridiculous plot twists, like the heist scene where the object of interest, a spell book, is hidden in an extra dimension of a museum. And I haven’t seen the television adaptation, but if you are mourning the loss of Michael K. Williams, he has a starring role.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders

 

Do you enjoy being emotionally pummeled and crying a lot? Do I have the book for you! Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is like someone slamming you into a concrete wall (I assume).

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When I first stumbled upon the short stories of George Saunders I became an instant fan, this despite my contentious relationship with both short stories and literary fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first and so far only novel, telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief through the illness and death of his son Willie, age 11.

There’s a huge cast of characters, almost all of them dead. “Bardo” is the Tibetan understanding of purgatory, that transitional state between life on earth and heaven, hell, or whatever comes after. This book has a lot of passages on life and death and grief, like a whole whole lot. Other not-exactly-lighthearted topics include chattel slavery and the carnage of war. (It also has comedic relief, such as the married couple who swear like exceptionally foul-mouthed sailors.)

The audiobook was magnificent, though I almost gave up on it. The 166 (not a typo) character cast is overwhelming. I recommend having the book or e-book near to hand while listening, at least for the first few minutes, so you don’t feel lost. I say this as an avid audiobook listener: it’s hard to get into.

But if you stick with it, the experience is extraordinary. The two narrators with the most lines are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris. Both are brilliant. Other narrators include Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon.

I loved this book and wish all my friends would read it, but I acknowledge not everyone enjoys being slammed into a concrete wall. I can’t pretend it’s an easy book. To say nothing of the weighty themes, the novel is unusual in its style, mixing hundreds of characters with contemporary historical accounts. It takes work to read, and even more work to listen to, if you go the audiobook route—but, for me anyway, it was worth the effort.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

How to be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi

 

After the racial turmoil and social unrest of 2020, I set a goal that half the books I read be about race, racism, or antiracism. I did that for a full year. Of everything I read, the book I most recommend is How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi.

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Dr. Kendi argues that the root of racism is racist policy, not individual hatred or ignorance. This is such a different angle than that we see in workplaces and schools and houses of worship. A workshop on unconscious bias won’t end racism (which I kind of already suspected) and teaching your children not to hate won’t end racism (which is eye-opening for me). Ending racist policies will end racism.

Dr. Kendi mixes history with memoir and devotes significant time to intersections with other identities. If you enjoy audiobooks, he does a fine job as narrator.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

 

Station Eleven is a novel about the world after a plague kills off most of humanity. It came out in 2014 but this seemed like an appropriate time to read it because, uh. No reason.

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I started listening to the audiobook (narrated by Kirsten Potter) expecting a dystopia, but really it’s literary fiction dressed up like science fiction for Halloween. It’s like when parents sneak vegetables into their kid’s mac and cheese. RUDE.

So I was not quite the right audience for this. There was too much navel-gazing for me, too much time spent exploring the unraveling of one couple’s marriage. When I read dystopias, I want widespread societal collapse and heroic sacrifices and roving bands of cannibals. (This is basically a plot summary of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a literary dystopia that happens to be one of my favorite books. 🤷‍♀️)

But this is a matter of personal taste, not criticism of Emily St. John Mandel as a writer. She jumps back and forth between the world as it was before, the few weeks when the plague swept through, and the survivors living their new lives 19 years later. This includes a traveling theater troupe that brings Shakespeare to villages along the shore of Lake Michigan, because even after the apocalypse, there’s more to life than mere survival.

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The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett

 

Last year I enjoyed Raymond Chandler’s book The Big Sleep, which had all the pulpy genre elements I expected: a down-on-his-luck, wise-cracking, lone wolf detective, beautiful femmes fatales, and lots of rugged philosophy about the crumbling state of the world.

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I expected something similar from Dashiell Hammett’s book The Thin Man, and boy was I wrong. Nick Charles and his wife Nora are quite happily married. They banter and laugh and solve crimes for fun. Nora is an heiress, so they don’t need the money. You wouldn’t know it was even hardboiled, if not for all the drinking.

The book is a breezy read (and a fun listen, if you like audiobooks). The assistant to an eccentric scientist turns up dead, and you might be able to guess who murdered her, especially if you’ve seen the movie, but the whodunnit isn’t the main point. The point is to spend time with some zany characters who are living the good life, now that prohibition is over. Recommended, with the warning that there’s some casual racism that did not age well.

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The Cold Dish

Robin Wall Kimmerer

 

The Cold Dish is the first in a series of mysteries set in fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. When a young man is found shot, there’s a good chance it’s a hunting accident. When a second young man is shot, Sheriff Walt Longmire knows he has a murderer loose.

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There’s a big cast of characters, most notably Longmire, an agreeable fella, creeping up on retirement but not there yet, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear, a local bartender. The banter between the two is the best part of the book, sort of that buddy-cop vibe.

But there’s a lot more here than folksy character sketches. There are action scenes and gruesome violence alternating with scenes of contemplation and inward focus. Craig Johnson gives us shoot-em-up action, but he also gives us deeper material: the racial dynamics between the American Indians and the white people; the repercussions of sexual violence; depression as a chronic disease.

I’m not too much of a mystery reader, because a novel without elves or wizards is a missed opportunity, but I plan to keep going with these.

I enthusiastically recommend the audio. The narrator is George Guidall, who has narrated thousands and thousands of books. I recognized his voice from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World, and Beowulf.

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Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer

One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

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Even though I discuss and describe books professionally, I’m struggling to communicate what this book is about. In my spreadsheet where I track my reading, I settled on two genres, Science and Ethics, so we’ll start there. Kimmerer is an ecologist. She writes about plants, their role in the environment, and their social history. Think Michael Pollan’s THE BOTANY OF DESIRE.

She talks about the ethics of sharing the planet with plants and animal, diving deep into the concept of reciprocity. She draws on her Potawatomi heritage to use fables, myths, prayers, and traditions to understand how humans should participate in their ecological communities.

As a young woman, Kimmerer was torn between studying science and studying poetry. She opted for science, but her writing is gorgeous. Think Annie Dillard’s THE PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK.

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Piranesi

Susanna Clarke

Back in 2004, Susanna Clarke made a huge splash with her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Seventeen years later, she delivers a stellar sophomore novel with Piranesi, which unfortunately I can’t describe in detail, because even the tiniest spoiler would send this Jenga tower crashing down. This is a magnificently plotted book and I don’t want to give anything away. All I can safely say is that our point-of-view character is named Piranesi, and he lives in an endless labyrinth by the sea.

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It’s such an atmospheric story. It’s not creepy, exactly, but you can tell at once that something is very off, even if poor innocent Piranesi is unaware of it. He has only one living friend, an elusive figure called The Other, though he lovingly tends the bones of the 13 bodies scattered around the labyrinth.

The book’s unreliable but well-intentioned narrator doles out clues to help you understand what’s going on, but I confess I was halfway done reading the book before I began to understand where Clarke was taking the story. Ultimately it coalesces as a work of science fiction, though it’s also safe to call it literary fiction. Recommended for fans of Claire North’s trippy science fiction/literary fiction novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World
and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

As part of my antiracism reading goals, I listened to the audiobook of Between the World and Me, written and read by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a Black American journalist who writes about race and white supremacy. The book doesn’t really have a plot, which makes it difficult to summarize. The writing here is meditative. It’s not one of those books where you speed through to see what happens next. You read a bit, chew on it for a while, dip in for another few minutes, duck back out again. In some ways it has the same rhythms and reflections that I associate with spiritual writing, though Coates is an atheist.

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This book is not prescriptive. Coates doesn’t tell you what to do. Instead, he invites you to think. Recommended for anyone interested in social justice and race. It would be especially good as a book group selection.

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Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons

Stephen King

I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s short fiction. Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, starting with “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” This is the basis for The Shawshank Redemption, i.e., the movie that everyone mentions in their dating profile.

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“Sometimes I like going out, sometimes I like staying in lol. My kids come first!!! My favorite movie is the Shawshank Redemption. Any questions just ask, I’m an open book lol.”

It’s about an innocent man who plays a very long game to get out of prison. If you’ve only seen the movie, set aside a couple of hours and read the original. It’s a perfect story.

Next up is my least favorite in the collection, “Apt Pupil.” It’s quite good, but I have had my fill of angry young men and Nazis. There’s enough of both in real life. (Apparently it’s also a movie? I dunno, I never saw it, and no one ever mentions it on OK Cupid).

Then there’s “The Body,” the basis of the movie “Stand by Me,” about four tween boys who hear a rumor about a dead body in the woods. As with all my favorite Stephen King stories, the plot is important, but not as important as the characters.

Different Seasons was published in 1982, back when the world thought of King as a horror writer, rather than a storyteller who occasionally writes horror. “The Breathing Method” is the only straight-up horror story here (though you’d be right to call “Apt Pupil” psychological horror). It’s a break from King’s typical folksy style, where you feel like you’re chatting with a buddy. Instead he takes a more formal tone, like you might expect from M. R. James or Daphne du Maurier. The story is about a paranormal event surrounding the delivery of a child, though there are hints of cosmic horror that give everything an extra layer of depth.

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The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is one of my favorite writers. He takes bizarre topics and finds the humor in them–similar to Mary Roach’s writing in humor and quirkiness, though his topics are a few shades grimmer.

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This time the topic is mental illness, especially psychopathy. The amygdala of a psychopath functions differently. Psychopaths typically lack empathy and impulse control. They can do an extraordinary amount of damage because they’re just not that bothered by consequence, and usually they can lie their way out, anyway. They often come across as charismatic. They can wreak havoc on a small scale (by murdering you) or on a large scale (by murdering economies, countries, and social systems).

In a book full of disturbing people and mental illnesses, one of the most disturbing parts was learning how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was put together. It’s all a bit slapdash. This does not fill me with confidence on the practice of mental health care.

I recommend Jon to lots of people, including readers who don’t normally go in for nonfiction.

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The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief

Christopher Buehlman

It’s lonely, being a fan of Christopher Buehlman. Despite strong critical praise, his books remain one of the best-kept secrets in genre fiction, largely because horror novels have a niche audience. With his debut fantasy novel, The Blacktongue Thief, I’m hopeful more people will start to discover his writing.

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The hero of this adventure story is Kinch Na Shannack, a professional thief who is voluntold to accompany a warrior woman on a journey. A great many fantasy novelists will throw in one lady character, give her a sword, and spend the rest of the story focused on men doing man things. Buehlman gives swords to just about all women in his world—a necessity, since 90% of the men died during the goblin wars.

The book is often funny and often dark, usually at the same time. It’s an adventure story, and while many of the trappings are familiar from your D&D game (witches, assassins, goblins, enchanted rings), the plot is fresh, the characters are multifaceted, the world-building is superb, and the wordsmithing is far better than most of what’s out there, in any genre.

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