mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: psycho, deviant, and the monster of florence

It’s almost Halloween! I love watching scary movies all month and reading spooky books to get me in the mood, even if I don’t actually do anything on the 31st (except, of course, have a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon 🙂 Here are three books on serial killers I listened to on audio this year:

I’ve been enjoying classics lately on audio, so I went with Robert Bloch’s seminal horror novel Psycho last March. Thanks to the iconic Hitchcock film, you all know the story: Woman skips town with a wad of cash from work, ends up at Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, whose secrets go deeper and are more upsetting than some stolen money. She’s never heard from again, and her boyfriend and sister go looking for her. Even though this was short and I knew the plot already, Psycho is still a tight, suspenseful read that has quite a bit of depth left out of the movie. Bloch was inspired by the capture of Ed Gein (see below). It’s very short—just over five hours on audio—but it packs an intense punch. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

I’m not sure why I decided to listen to Deviant by Harold Schechter last March/April… maybe I was homesick, as weird as that sounds! (Well, I’m always homesick.) Anyway, it popped up in my recommendations after I finished Psycho and I decided why not. The life of Ed Gein is truly one terrifying, disturbing nightmare. Gein was a low-profile farmhand in Plainfield, Wisconsin, often helping out neighbors as a babysitter or handyman, basically regarded as a harmless “town simpleton.” But beneath the innocuous facade was a depraved murderer, whose behavior and actions behind closed doors was unimaginably gruesome, each discovery unearthed in his farmhouse by authorities in 1957 more strange and chilling than the last. He was the inspiration for PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Silence of the Lambs, and more. As a sucker for true crime and Gein being serious lore in my home state of Wisconsin, this book kept me intrigued and captivated throughout. It is definitely NOT for the faint of heart; Norman Bates is positively quaint compared to Ed Gein. Fun fact: Gein spent the last years of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, just a couple miles from the street I grew up on! [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

***Both Psycho and Deviant are fascinating, gripping books, but I have to mention that the discussions of mental illness and the way the term transvestite is used in both books are dated and problematic. Deviant (1989) would be easy enough to edit and update, and anyway I’d even bet there are more recent books on Ed Gein.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston was recommended to me by one of my oldest, best friends back home in Madison last summer, and I was excited to see it was available on my library app! Author Douglas Preston discovered the olive grove in front of his family’s new Italian home was the location of one of Italy’s most notorious double-murders. Preston, with the help of a local investigator Mario Spezi, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, known simply as the Monster of Florence. They end up interviewing the man they believe may be the killer, but then end up the focus of a police investigation themselves. I liked the first part of the book better (the second half dragged somewhat, and was more about Preston than the murders), but it still reads like a suspense-thriller in the vein of Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Larson’s Devil in the White City. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: bury my heart and killer moon

I’m a day late, but I thought this “holiday” (it’s awesome and amazing that this is being reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day by more and more cities and states!) is a good time to share my thoughts on two excellent books I recently read about Native American Indian history:

I’ve had Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my TBR list forever. I really wonder why this wasn’t in my high school history curriculum (along with Zinn’s A People’s History…). Bury My Heart is a dark but necessary piece of United States history that tells the truth about how this country was built on greed, slaughter, and oppression rather than Christian values and a desire for independence as is so often taught in school. Bury My Heart outlines the systematic decimation of Native Americans from the day Europeans landed through the nineteenth century. Time and again the Native Americans were tricked, threatened, robbed, and massacred, yet they still compromised with white men to avoid war. By the time they did fight, it was too little, too late. Bury My Heart is long and dense, but gripping. This is our shameful, racist story of genocide and crimes against humanity, and should be required reading for every American. This is one of the best books I read in 2016, and I regret not reading it earlier. This horrific era (and the events in Flowers of the Killer Moon) are closer to us and our time than we’d like to think. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2016.]

David Grann is a master of well-researched narrative non-fiction, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks right up there with The Lost City of Z for me. This book starts as a true-crime murder mystery: in the 1920s, residents of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma begin to be killed off, an event called “The Reign of Terror.” This is after the Osage people profited from inhabiting oil-rich land… which they were forced onto from their native lands decades earlier. Local and federal government agencies found ways to take advantage of these riches (and take money out of the hands of these citizens) by manipulating laws and policies so that the Osage weren’t deemed fit to handle their own money. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was brand new, and this was its first big homicide investigation. Using this one case as his example, Grann deftly exposes the racist, deceitful, and shameful tactics used not only by individuals but by institutions of government and law enforcement to further exploit and oppress Native Americans after where Bury My Heart leaves off. This was just shy of a century ago; why haven’t I heard about it before? This book is full of secrets, twists, and layer upon layer of disgusting corruption. It’s another engrossing piece of must-read American history. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

monthly recap image

mini-reviews: the bell jar and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I’m not great at reading classics. There are some I remember from high school and just loathing (Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall Apart) that I would definitely like to give a second chance. But there are some classics that weren’t in my school curriculum that I’ve always wanted to read, but have had trouble starting. Thank you, audiobooks! This year I’ve listened to a few, and these two complemented each other nicely.

I just finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal) a couple days ago. I really wish I had read this in my late teens or early 20s—I think I would have been obsessed! It’s an eerie, affecting book especially knowing Plath’s life story and her suicide. The writing is beautiful but also unemotional, if that makes sense. I didn’t quite get “insane” from Esther, but her mental illness does come through from knowing hints in the beginning to growing paranoia and intense questioning of her own thoughts and actions by the end. The electroshock therapy scenes were horrifying. I was really moved by Plath’s use of being trapped in a bell jar to describe Esther’s mental state—the distorted view from the inside looking out. It’s obvious why this is a time-tested classic. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

Many years ago I “borrowed” my mom’s copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and surprise! never got around to reading it. The audiobook version, though, read by Tom Parker, was fantastic and engaging. I saw the movie years ago but didn’t realize the book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden. McMurphy is quite a character—he’s likable, obnoxious, and a troublemaker, but it’s a fight-the-power kind of trouble that I liked. Kesey’s no-nonsense writing makes you think more about societal roles, authority, mental health, and its healing and treatment practices in psychiatric institutions, at least during the 1950s and 60s. I’m still not sure if McMurphy really had a mental illness or not. This was a great, complex story that I’m glad I finally took the time to experience. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]