My hand’s on the handle of the screen door and I pause, turn. The thought of going inside, drinking a glass of water, reading, undressing—the thought of doing these living things makes it hard to breathe and I think of Crazy Horse and massacres and muscle-bound dudes shooting pool and sex. Which of these thoughts will cast Her in the darkest light, will help me get free?
With sparse, languorous sentences that nonetheless hold a masterful deep-seated tension throughout, The Glamshack is a look into the interior landscape of a man on the edge of self-discovery, and, even larger, it chronicles the ubiquitous nature of us all.
Henry has found the woman of his dreams, he even thinks he loves her, but the problem is that she is engaged to another man and she’s leaving to go visit this fiancé in New Orleans.
Henry has twelve days to figure out what he’s doing with his life. And what it looks like from the outside is living in someone else’s pool house, having an affair with a woman who’s about to be married, and flushing his job down the drain.
But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Henry’s story begins not with the entrance of the unnamed Her into his life, but with childhood memories and how he sees an unlikely parallel of his story in the long-past Plains Indians wars.
What is interesting about The Glamshack is the inversion of the expected gender roles. In a book like this, you would generally expect the Henry character to be a woman. Instead, we get the opposite, and we follow Henry’s introspection, his male point of view, and the world looking back at him.
I think it's important that the book is set in 1999, just before the new millennium, when there really is nothing in the book to suggest that it has to be set in this time period. This setting, which the reader is reminded about at the start of every chapter that isn't a memory, is significant.
It is about to be a turning point, the collective holding of breath before something new begins. Henry, and perhaps the rest of the world, are stuck in stasis, but when the clock turns over, it could be a reset, a chance to try again, be better, have freedom. Who knows what will happen. 1999 represents the top of the rollercoaster for Henry, what happens after these 12 days could potentially determine his freedom.
His job involves writing for what he dubs the “Glamrag,” a magazine mostly full of advertisements where “editorial doesn’t count for shit” and he is in charge of interviewing photographers, tv commercial directors, model scouts, and the like.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, to really get any story now that She is in his head. And his job is on the line. None of these ordinary things seem to matter to Henry anymore, though.
In glamorous LA, everything is surface level. All anyone seems to see in him is that he would make a good model. He’s got a look and he’s got “as little as possible going on behind the eyes.” That’s all it takes to be a male model: a good looking body and nothing in your head.
Is that what attracted Her to Henry? His prettiness and emptiness? And what makes Her so valuable to him anyway?
I spent a lot of time trying to dissect their relationship, since even though Henry is the one telling his story, I didn't find him that redeeming of a character—there really isn’t that much going on with him. He seems damaged, fixated on bringing everything back to this childhood obsession with a madman in the woods, who may have been a figment of his own imagining.
Henry uses his twelve days to unravel his relationship with Her and see what went wrong, if it even did. He delves into his childhood, grasping for threads, and it seems he spent a lot of his childhood running—it’s almost like a totem for him. A type of power.
But being so fast at running means you are always running away from something, hiding from something. And perhaps the madman resides there too, something to shield him from getting too close to the truth.
What makes their affair so special? Perhaps the point is that it isn’t. Perhaps the point is that there is nothing special about Henry or his experience, much as he tries to distinguish himself, to dig through himself to create meaning, to find substance.
It's another history of broken promises and scarring, sadness and broken hearts. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare one torrid love affair to the decades-long struggle and oppression suffered by the Native Americans, but it gives an interesting insight into Henry’s mind.
There is darkness in all of us. What matters in the end is what you’re searching for, what you consider to be worth giving up everything else for. Freedom? The divine? A woman?
What’s the difference really?
Get your copy of The Glamshack (out June 15, 2017)
Find out more about the author, Paul Cohen
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13
This is a dark, entangling, deeply unsettling sort of book. The type that digs gritty fingernails deep into your skin, your very bones, and doesn’t let go, not even after you’re finished reading.
Felicia Sullivan had me wrapped up in her story from the very beginning and from there it only gathers steam, or more like vicious black smoke, a smoke that may smell of charred human remains.
I have a deep love of horror but so often horror is given a bad rap as something shallow or schlocky or just too gory and horrible for the sake of being so. Follow Me into the Dark brings horror into the realm of the literary in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones.
Like much of his writing, this book isn’t afraid to go to places that may be difficult to understand, to use language that might obscure the meaning, or to just straight up obfuscate the scene in a way that makes you have to feel your way out, almost like you are in the dark yourself sometimes.
Of course, this is intentional—the nonlinear structure of the novel, the slippage between the generations and the years causes a disconnect, while at the same time highlighting how patterns of behavior, pain, and illness can be passed down the line affecting family members differently as they fracture outward.
The main thrust of the plot follows Kate whose mother is dying of cancer. Her stepfather is concurrently sleeping with Gillian, who happens to be a doppelgänger of Kate and further, there is a serial killer called the Doll Collector on the loose killing girls who have similar appearance to her as well. Gillian’s stepbrother Jonah increasingly matches the description of the killer, but it couldn’t really be him, could it?
Kate begins delving into her past and her mother’s past, bringing things to the surface that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Abuse, mental illness, loss, and pain begin narrating the pages and her emotions, especially negative ones like anger and rage, start boiling over in a way she can no longer control and the lines in her own mind begin to blur.
Perhaps the answers to now lie in the past, no matter how difficult it is to face them.
As a reader, I got the feeling that I couldn’t really trust any of the narrators; there is a sense of unreliability throughout the novel, though it is built on enough trustworthy details that I just had to keep digging. I wanted to find the truth!
There is a velvety depth to the language of this book. I got lost in it, I drowned in it. I felt like I was going crazy at times—truth is not absolute in this book, the words sometimes withhold more than they reveal, but what is clear is the profound nature of personal suffering and the lengths that some will go to, however misguided by the mind or the past, to end it.
Chilling and compelling. A beautifully written debut novel.
Get your copy of Follow Me into the Dark
Find out more about the author, Felicia Sullivan
Find out more about the publisher, Feminist Press
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What is literally happening in Fever Dream is not so much the point. In fact, the book can be interpreted several ways and probably should be. It doesn’t even limit itself to one state of being, heck, nor should it.
It is not meant to be taken literally, or rather it is, it begs to be taken for exactly what it is, while at the same time being no more than a metaphor, a haunting,
What I mean to say is that this is a very different sort of narrative. It begs to be read in a single sitting—there are no chapters or breaks of any kind, it just reads straight through. All we really know is that there are two speakers, Amanda (writing in roman) and David (writing in italics).
They are in a hospital where Amanda is ill and David is asking her questions, getting her to recount her memories of a specific time, a seemingly innocuous summer when she was vacationing with her daughter. He seems to be looking for some sort of specific information, a precise moment.
We find out that he is a child and Amanda knew his mother.
We find out that something went wrong, but what was it, exactly?
Being suffused into Amanda’s story is a bit like sinking into your own fever dream. At the beginning, the two speaker’s repartee is a bit of a shock—like jumping into cold water—it takes a minute to decipher who is saying what and what exactly is going on, there is a continued discussion of worms? What worms? Why are there worms? And where are we anyway?
But once she settles into the rhythm of her memory, it all feels familiar, like a promised story. It lulls you to your normal state of reading, what you are used to.
And all behind that, tension is mounting. In David’s carefully phrased questions, in the very specific use of language (brava, translator!) there is a feeling of unease that something is coming, something isn’t quite right.
There is this great repeated imagery throughout of a child (Nina) being attached to her mother (Amanda) by a thread by a rescue distance. When the rescue distance pulls taut, Amanda can feel it in her stomach, in her gut, that something is wrong. Depending on the situation, the distance is shorter or longer. I thought this such an apt description of a mother’s intuition and willingness to do anything to protect her child.
This book masters the smudged line of the fantastic. What is real? What is supernatural? Is it all in Amanda’s head, courtesy of her illness? Is it possible? What has even happened? There are several distinct possibilities, but as readers, we are left trying to pick up the pieces, try to decode what of the information we’ve been given is reliable.
Existential, metaphorical, delirious, and all the more compelling for the way it leaves the reader to decide the truth, this tiny book packs a punch. Yet another great achievement from Riverhead. I would love to see the other works from this author translated.
Get your copy of Fever Dream
Find out more about the author, Samanta Schweblin
Find out more about the publisher, Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
Get your copy of His Bloody Project
Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
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“What’s the real way to make a horror movie?” (256)
You are an actor, but you’ve never been in a movie yet. All of a sudden, your agent calls: you’ve been given the chance of a lifetime, the role you’ve been waiting for, your big break. But you have to get on a plane to the Amazon right now, leaving everything behind, no time to let anyone know what’s going on, barely even time to pack a bag. You don’t know what the role is, or even what it movie is about, but you have to decide right now.
Do you go? Could you leave everything behind? Or would you wait for something with less unknowns?
We Eat Our Own is a literary psychological horror novel that also delves into political turmoil as well incorporating interesting film history throughout.
The main plot is that famed Italian horror director Ugo Velluto is filming a new experimental documentary-style film deep in the Amazon in the 1970s. Think The Blair Witch Project, but this is about 30 years before that movie was made. His American actor for the leading role of Richard, is cast late due to another actor dropping out.
The actor (only called “Richard” by the book) flies to South America, but nothing seems to be quite right—the director doesn’t really care that he is there, no one will give him a script, he can’t call home or potentially even leave, they are doing dangerous stunts that are nothing like movies in America... What is going on?
At the same time, the area of South America they are in is in dangerous political turmoil due to guerillas, drug traffickers, and even a mysterious American who runs the hotel they are all staying at. If the film doesn’t kill him, Colombia might.
Each chapter is told by a different character, some characters repeating frequently, some only being used once or twice. The book borders on experimental at times, with main actor Richard’s sections being told in second person—like my opening paragraph—which is very unusual for novels.
Even from the start, there is a sinister tone to Richard’s sections; there is always some sort of reference like: “Here’s what you don’t know…” which makes the reader uncomfortably omniscient, with this growing sense of dread that something terrible is coming, something horrible is going to happen to Richard.
The other chapters are not in second person, but they use other alienating features, like the lack of quotes around dialogue, which can make the reader lose track of who is speaking as the dialogue runs together a bit.
Interspersed throughout the main plot of the movie set, and a side plot of a few young political guerillas (that comes into play later, you’ll see!), there are transcripts from a trial that make the reader aware that everything we are experiencing in the Amazon has already happened, and Ugo is on trial for something, though we aren’t sure what.
Being a horror movie buff, what really drew me to this book in the first place was the idea that it was inspired by the cult exploitation film, Cannibal Holocaust, along with the Italian giallo tradition, a type of horror movie with crime elements, often featuring a slasher, most prevalent throughout the 70s.
I really enjoyed the chapters from the point of view of the special effects team, a husband and wife who have worked with Ugo on many of his previous films. It’s obvious that Wilson did a lot of research about special effects in horror movies to write these scenes.
There is great detail about how bodies and body parts are created out of gelatin molds and sometimes (when you are in the jungle with no resources) even butchered animals to create horror effects. I loved every second of it.
It’s a mix of schlocky horror like Cannibal Holocaust, with literary horror like Heart of Darkness, and documentary horror like The Blair Witch Project. An ambitious and experimental novel that is deeply unsettling and written to great effect.
Get your copy of We Eat Our Own
Find out more about the author, Kea Wilson
Find out more about the publisher, Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
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As the weather gets colder, we look for books to snuggle up with and keep us warm!
Alice Hoffman’s newest centers around a tragedy that completely stops Shelby Richmond’s life and sends her into an internal spiral. She holes up in her parents’ basement, buys weed from the kid she used to make fun of at school, and hides away from the world.
The details of this tragedy are slowly revealed throughout the first half of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away, but what is more interesting is how Shelby reemerges into the world—her starts and stops, her mistakes, her successes, and her truly lovely and real personality that comes heartbreakingly to life on the page.
Finally moving out of the basement in Long Island and into an apartment in New York City, Shelby discovers a love for animals: working at a pet store, rescuing drugged dogs from homeless people who use them for money, and later, even saving a monster (you’ll have to read the book to figure out what that means).
Her compulsive rescuing and need to care for these (adorably sad sounding) creatures perhaps comes from her desire to have control over situations that she feels need fixing. When she can make the situation better for the dogs, those dogs that really deserve it, she feels empowered and in control—nothing like the night of the accident, the night she is always trying to forget.
Because Shelby can’t change what happened that night, and she’s been blaming herself all these years, not letting herself move forward.
All the while, she receives intermittent illustrated postcards from some unknown person, urging her to “Do something,” or “Say something.” These notes weigh heavily on her—someone notices her; someone has not forgotten.
Where Shelby falters is with people. She isn’t sure how to accept love from or give love to others and is wary of romantic relationships and friendships alike. What can she give? With the dogs, it is different. They rely on her. They need her, and in return they love her. It makes sense.
But people are so much more complicated and you can get hurt. It takes some rambunctious children, and some time, before she can ease back into letting people into her life.
Hoffman interweaves a brilliant and strong narrative of a young girl trying to find her way in life and redefine who she is without everything she used to be. It is a story about loneliness, dogs, heartbreak, and letting the world find you just as you are—whole and ready to face it.
The postcards come back at the end in a fitting finish. (I have to go find my copy of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man now!) I liked how it tied up the story and gave Shelby closure and a new beginning all at once.
I truly enjoyed this book. It is a quiet yet filling narrative that offers a real-to-life story that you can still escape inside. Shelby isn’t a perfect heroine, but she is someone who has been through everything that life has thrown her way and she still came out the other side. Something we can all aspire to.
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Find out more about the author, Alice Hoffman
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Find out more about the publisher, Simon and Schuster
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It’s October and you’re looking to snuggle down with a good read. I can help with that! If you’re looking for something to really get into, a book with a lot of interesting moving parts, I suggest Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch.
This is the third novel by Koch translated into English and all three have sold well. After reading this, I promptly went and borrowed the first two, The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, from my mom, who avidly read them as they came out. (Moms are always right, aren’t they? I should’ve listened to her!)
Dear Mr. M begins as voyeuristic letters written to a well-known author in Norway. The stalker-like letters, which are almost more like diary entries, detail moments in the author’s life and even his wife and child’s movements throughout their day. Creepy, no?
But there is something else, details from a shared past that keep popping up. It seems that this shadowy figure behind the letters is harboring some pent-up feelings about one of Mr. M’s books, a book that although fiction, is based on true events.
These true events are ones that the letter writer was involved in, where a teacher who had an illicit affair with one of his high school students goes missing after last being seen by the student and her new boyfriend. They, of course, are suspected.
Then, there is an abrupt narrative switch and all of a sudden we are back in time, a fly on the wall learning about the true events that led up to Laura’s relationship with her teacher, Mr. Landzaat, and how she falls for her new (age-appropriate) boyfriend Herman and the ultimate disappearance of the teacher. It is almost shocking how the narrative voice switches.
There is yet another switch to the author Mr. M’s perspective and we watch as he handles his decline into authorial obscurity, overshadowed by younger, better writers, and haunted by the fact that he probably reached his pinnacle long ago and most people no longer bother to buy his books or even know who he is. Isn’t this what authors everywhere fear? Gaining fame from one book and then never being able to equal it?
Where the book really picks up is in its intersecting narratives. Past and present, fact and fiction, truth and lies. It contains a sort of meta-narrative, thinking about books that use real events but distort them.
Sometimes the narrator, the letter writer (I won’t give away his identity as identity goes far in this book), goes outside of the book to think about the structure of it, discussing how he is telling three different stories and how the reader might receive them.
The way Koch handles these seemingly disparate sections is truly unique. The book almost feels like three novellas that happen to tangentially intersect and then meld completely into one by the end.
The mystery that I suppose you could say is central to the book, what happened to Mr. Landzaat, is not nearly as important as how it is told. And this is so timely for us as a culture right now!
With shows like Making a Murderer literally making up the public’s mind for them without telling the full story, it is easy to see how information can be manipulated to tell one story over another. If you’ve seen this show and by the end were completely convinced of Stephen Avery’s innocence, think again—everything is not as that documentary presented it. And do some research! Don’t just believe everything you see!
If you are interested in true crime, I also recommend the new Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix. She is the American student who was studying abroad in Italy and along with her Italian boyfriend, was convicted of brutally murdering her English roommate. They were both acquitted and are now free. It’s an amazing look at how a version of a narrative gets way out of hand and how police prejudice (not to mention shoddy police work) and media vilification can create a verdict.
In the book, you might be wondering why there is so much focus on things that are only tangentially related to that main mystery—isn’t that what the book is about, after all? Don’t you just want to know what happened all those years ago!?
I would argue that while the plot centers around that mystery, the book itself is more about the metafictional aspect of building a story. About the manipulation of words and how people use them to tell truths or lies and how that may change over time.
Mr. M used the intriguing tale of two students who may or may not have offed their teacher to write a novel that tells a tale of its own. But is that how it happened? Not according to the letter writing stalker. Whose truth is the real truth? What story can we really believe?
The complexity of the plot, intricacy of the characters, and tone that this book created reminded me a lot of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a truly magnificent novel that similarly contains a mystery that isn’t as important as the story and the characters that are built up throughout the book.
There is this magical quality about them that serves as a building warning throughout; the reader knows something is off, something bad is going to happen or has already happened, but it has yet to be revealed. That tension is everything.
Though there are three stories contained in this book, there are really four if you count the book itself, which contains all of them, as its own sort of truth and record. In the end, that book brings the narrative back to the fictional landscape that the whole story really lies on. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that while reading.
But that’s the final layer: the reader. Without someone opening the book and deciding to read it, none of the stories can take place and interact, because the real work of the story happens in your mind. The real unfolding is an active process that can only take place once the physical book is here, with you, in the room. Then you too become part of the story, yet another layer, yet another part of the story.
So take it. And begin.
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Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth (Penguin Random House)
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Warning: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. Preferably, you’ll have oysters and a great bottle of wine to pair.
I have not worked in a restaurant, but Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter makes it seem unbearable, beautiful, physically painful, delectable, emotionally draining, and worth every minute. The book follows Tess, a newcomer to New York City and the upscale restaurant business, as she navigates her way through this new world, trying to find herself and her place in it.
Both the city and the restaurant have such parallels: they seem shining and bright, beautiful and glamorous to any outsider, but the knowledgeable insider knows better. They see the seedy underbelly, where things are rotten and falling apart, the places where the flies congregate and the inspector hopefully won’t look.
The restaurant is like a microcosm of the city as a whole and Tess’s experience in the restaurant definitely shapes how she sees the city, and more broadly, the world.
The book is interesting as it is a coming-of-age novel about a girl, more of a young woman actually, but that age, 22, is when we are really beginning to make decisions about our lives here in the modern age.
College is over, the illusion is broken, there is no more stalling. What are we going to do with ourselves? Unless there’s more school in your future, now is when many kids are thrust out of the nest and into the realities of adult life.
But at the same time, we aren’t quite ready to give up on our youth yet and our 20s are definitely still a time for experimenting, reveling, and finding our place in the world—hopefully with less eyeliner, hair dye, and angst than in our teens.
The start of the book is an imperative statement: “You will develop a palate.” What is a palate? It is first of all the obvious, as Tess develops a taste for luxurious foods and begins to be able to discern the differences between types of wines, knowing every detail about each bottle and vintage.
But at the same time, that palate extends to so many other things, including sexual desire, drugs and alcohol, ambition, strength, family, and especially a taste for life, as she learns to allow herself to open up to every avenue, trying to figure out who she is going to be in this new world she’s stumbled into.
That statement about the palate isn’t just directed at Tess, either. It is for the benefit of the readers too, in hopes that this book and in a wider sense, our experiences and our willingness to be open to those experiences, will develop. We too are on a journey, just like Tess.
While we can be voyeurs on her journey, seeing everything she does for better or worse, we are the main characters on our own journey. It might be easy to judge some of Tess’s decisions, but it’s not so easy to stand at a remove from your own life.
Some books, like fantasy or science fiction, you read to take you away to another place or time. Books like Sweetbitter, so centered in the real world with all its grit and struggle, really bring you back to yourself. Though my life is not at all similar to Tess’s, I completely aligned with her struggle as a young woman of a similar age and I appreciate the way her story is told.
The moving-to-New-York-to-start-a-new-life plot line is by no means a new idea. It may be one of the oldest in the book. But Danler reinvents it just as she reinvents the male-centric coming-of-age novel, making the restaurant center stage, while New York plays a distant side role, popping up every once in a while.
The main focus is this restaurant and how her occupation as a backwaiter forms the whole of her identity during her time in the city. Outside the doors of the restaurant, not surrounded by her surrogate family, she is just another blank face in the crowd, completely indistinguishable from the thousands of other faces passing by.
She develops agency throughout the book, but holds back from using it. The reader knows she has the power based on the way her character changes. It is hard to even call her a character since she behaves so much as a real person.
The book is also divided into sections, each one named after a season: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring. It's not new either, but an interesting and subtle division that echoes Tess's journey. We work with her through the heat of summer, watching her old life fall away with as autumn comes. Into the depths of the winter she faces hardship, times of loneliness, confusion, and finds the strength to face it all. By the spring, she is ready for new growth to break through, for new experiences, for a new Tess.
In the end, Tess’s final act proves how she has learned from her experience despite her missteps and seeming inaction throughout much of the book.
There is room for her to grow, but you could say the same about all of us at any moment in our lives. How interesting would we be if there were nothing left to try, nothing left to fail at?
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Find out more about the author, Stephanie Danler
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Find out more about the publisher, Knopf (Penguin Random House)
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If there’s something Jonathan Lethem can do, it’s come up with plots no one else has thought of. His plots are even wilder than stuff you’ve dreamed up and then forgot, but had that lingering notion of in the back of your mind when you wake up in the morning. Yeah, try and figure that one out.
Man, I bet he has the best elevator pitches, though.
So, my book is about a girl who leaves her boyfriend not for another guy, but for a black hole that she created in a lab.
Ok, this one is like 1984 meets Brave New World meets Animal Farm meets The Maltese Falcon, no? It’s a noir sci-fi thriller with talking animals, what’s not to like?
This new one is a doozy: an international backgammon hustler who may or may not be psychic starts going blind from a blot in the center of his vision.
Oh, yeah. He went there.
While backgammoning (is that a word? Aside: I only learned to play backgammon this past weekend, thanks to my lovely and talented mother, as research for this book. It is actually a pretty fun game, and any knowledge you have of it will definitely help you as you read certain sections!) abroad in Singapore, Alexander Bruno meets an old childhood friend, Stolarsky, who has mysteriously become a real estate mogul in their hometown of Berkeley.
After their encounter, things go awry for Alexander in Berlin, when he passes out during a game with a client. He wakes up in the hospital and his situation is serious. The “blot” that has been growing to occlude his vision is actually a tumor behind his nose and eyes and it is inoperable, at least for the German doctors.
Blot is used as an interesting double entendre, as this is also a backgammon term for a checker left alone on a point and therefore vulnerable to being hit.
But there is a guy, a crazy hippy doctor in California (of all places), who specializes in such tumor removal. Perhaps Alexander could return stateside? Penniless, he has no one to call except Stolarsky, who promptly books him a ticket home.
From the beginning, an anti-hero like Alexander is, of course, destined to return to his hometown to confront the reason why he left there, his old friend (however indirectly), his general issues with social life, himself, and of course, his tumor. He should probably get that looked at.
In true Lethem fashion, all that is not really what this book is about, though. Which is not to say that it isn’t important, or that it doesn’t play in metaphorically, thematically, or otherwise.
In backgammon, the board always starts out with the same placement, but the checkers can end up in wildly different positions all depending on the roll of the dice. It’s random chance, but it’s also how you decide to use your chance. What moves are available to you on the board and what strategy you are using. And one single roll can alter the luck of the entire board!
Really, it’s all a big metaphor for life and in this book, Alexander’s life has just turned into one losing game of backgammon after another.
The book also centers heavily around identity and what we consider identity. Our faces—now discoverable by technology like Facebook and potentially the Amazon bookstores—form such a large part of our identity that we can hardly ignore them.
But what happens when we take that away? When we become anonymous or our face no longer looks the same due to disfigurement, surgery, or injury?
In Alexander’s case, he takes on a new identity where the surgical mask he acquires later in the book not only becomes his new face (and his way to literally not face the world) but a viral sensation as a masked burger slinger and later as a political statement and symbol of anarchy. But who is Alexander, really?
When I think of influential masks, I think of Michael Myers, Jason, Guy Fawkes, Darth Vader, Ghost Face, Batman, and the Phantom of the Opera. (That last one might be left over from my musical theater training, but still, it’s pretty iconic.) Instantly recognizable, yet still we don’t know who is really behind the mask.
Masks confuse, intrigue, and repel us in equal measure. It is something that is of us but not enough like us to be one of us. They are really only acceptable on Halloween, otherwise we are a bit suspicious.
For the wearer, I see the appeal if you wish to hide your face, but it is a catch-22. No one can see your true identity, but you draw so much more attention to yourself by appearing too different from everyone else.
In a way, A Gambler’s Anatomy is like a post–coming-of-age novel, where the protagonist has not come-of-age but rather stayed in stasis and now a life-changing event is finally making him confront everything he tried to keep hidden away. Everything’s going to come out in the end.
There’s more to say, (you remember I said he thought he could read minds, right?) but there’s enough floating around here to get you started. Lethem understands what makes a story interesting and excels at the craft. You can’t go wrong picking this up or any of his earlier books for that matter.
Get your copy of A Gambler’s Anatomy (out 10/18)
Find out more about the author, Jonathan Lethem
Find out more about the publisher, Doubleday (Penguin Random House)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.