Book recommendations from a community of independent booksellers from across the U.S. (including my local indie bookstore here in Milwaukee). A new list each month, plus specialty lists for book clubs and kids.
Reading with a felonious mind, cross-genre. Also, I read contemporary poetry, and so should you.
I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.
(Spoiler-free until the note.)
The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).
The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?
Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.
(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.
Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)
Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.
I was disheartened but not surprised poetry was left out of the "Why I Love" featured posts in February. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has a comparatively small readership, at least in America. As a poet, it sometimes seems that only fellow poets read poetry, which is a shame.
Before I explain why I love poetry, here are some reasons why it appears readers avoid it (feel free to skip!):
1. Poetry tends not to be taught in school as consistently as prose, at least in the U.S. When it is, it's often works that are at least 50 years old, if not centuries. I went to a good public school, and in addition to Shakespeare's sonnets, we may occasionally have read the likes of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson. Fine poets, but not contemporary and not representative enough. As a result, students think all poetry must rhyme or be in form and sounds antiquated.
2. Poetry has a reputation for being "difficult." This is related to the reason above in that students erroneously learn to see poems as puzzles to be solved. Poems are not math problems (one more reason I love them). There is no mystical key you must stumble upon to "unlock" a poem. Poems are like living beings when encountered in that space between the words on the page (or in the air if heard) and what happens in your mind and body. When poems are approached as if they are puzzles, it's like treating them as dead things, or like Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's poem, when he is "fix[ed]...in a formulated phrase...sprawling on a pin...pinned and wriggling on the wall." If a reader is fixated on "solving" it, he/she will miss the poem's beauty.
3. We're living in a time when the arts and humanities are undervalued. In the U.S., funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been gutted in Trump's budget proposal, even though it's a minuscule slice of the federal pie. Even in Obama's presidency, the emphasis was on training and education for the science and technology fields. I have a PhD in English and still have been unable to find a full-time teaching position as the recession hit a few years before I graduated. As universities' budgets are cut, so are the literary journals they help fund. Essentially, there are fewer places to publish and read poetry.
So here's WHY I LOVE POETRY, and you should too!
1. Every line of a poem (or sentence/phrase in a prose poem) can be a surprise, can change everything, including the reader. Prose forms and drama build tension and suspense through plot; poetry doesn't need that. That combination of surprise and recognition that happens when you read a good poem is like having an epiphany over and over with each line, with no dilution of its revelation, or like hearing a favorite comedian deliver a punchline. My favorite example of a poem that embodies this sort of surprise is Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."
2. Sound and language for their own sake. Even if you have no idea what a poem is "about," you can enjoy the way it plays with language and sound. This is why nonsense poems like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" are still a delight. Also a reminder that poems are meant to be heard.
3. Diversity: of form, source (writer, culture, time), purpose. Every culture with which I am familiar has its own poetry (or poetries). Before prose, there was poetry. Before we wrote anything down, there was poetry. So whatever you're in the mood for, there's a poem for it, whether it's something political, personal, social; narrative or lyric; formal or free; angry, joyful, sad, funny.
Here's my favorite site to browse poems: poetryfoundation.org. You can browse by occasion, poet, movement, time period, place, etc.
Here are some contemporary poet recs. (Also feel free to browse my poetry tag(s).)
Juan Felipe Herrera
From the Tournament of Books match commentary for The Nix versus Homegoing.
I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.
Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.
Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.
The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.
Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?
Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.
The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.
Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven't read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it's dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment's death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.
The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she's not because she doesn't shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a "steady" relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle's to her girlfriend's, who thinks she's a sociopath.
That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle's objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:
Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.
I may also personally respond to Michelle because she's a writer, one who's even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we've read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn't feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don't know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.
I've often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.
Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.
As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They're dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle's bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle's in a good place, and so was I.
Michelle Tea, Black Wave
Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under "literary fiction" because I don't see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.
Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.
It's a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel's first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice--what it is and isn't, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn't care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.
Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice--on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She's found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she's in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she's been manipulated.
Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven't yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I'm happy for the challenge.
My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection's ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground--the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife--but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.
All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive--and then just aggressive--ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.
Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.
Cripes, the Tournament of Books shortlist was announced earlier in January, and somehow I missed it!
I've read 2 out of 18, including my favorite book from 2016, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge.Then 3 are on my wishlist, with 3 more that were maybes. The remaining 10 I either had no interest in or didn't enjoy the samples I read. Hoping to join the conversation come March.
ETA: Looking at the list of judges, I'm happy to see lots of ladies!
I'm dropping this at 35%. After the polar bears and second rape of a child, I'm done. The sample dazzled me when I read it: rich language, dark, and a favorite subject (whaling, remote places). I'd thought I was in the mood for it, having recently gone on a bit of a vengeance binge. But the language became too much; I don't need to constantly know how nasty everything smells. As I read I realized this would be one of those books that is about how ugly people are. Current events are reminding me of that enough.
This is the second novel in a row I've read (after Enchanted Islands) that's written as a sort of memoir from the perspective of an older person looking back. I'm not overly fond of traditional memoirs and wonder if this may in part account for my less than enthusiastic reaction upon finishing.
What this book does have going for it is a charming, somewhat unreliable narrator. Her asides and style as a storyteller often delighted and amused me. Mary is a naive girl at the start, and as an adult seems not much wiser. As a reader you may arch your brow at the gaps in her knowledge or what lies beneath her personality quirks (e.g. as a woman in her 50s at the end, she has developed a kind of fetish for reverends, owing to her first love, explored throughout the book). Mary is so plucky (and often critical of others) that I assumed she was still a child when the story began (in fact, she's a young lady already).
Returning to what I'm describing as memoir-ish--and an author's note explains that Mary's father was a real person, if not the whole family--there's only so much narrative thrust to the story. The plot advances in short chapters interspersed with others that give some background to the characters and to whaling. Essentially, Mary relays an account of a particular whaling season in Australia, most significant for her because she meets her first (and only romantic) love.
The novel was pleasant enough to read, but I needed something more and was also left confused by the end. Why end on that moment?