Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

In this darkly humorous, southern gothic novel, a family deals with the death of their taxidermist father in differing ways. His daughter Jessa, the narrator of the story, prepares to take over his taxidermy business. Jessa’s mother begins posing the taxidermied animals in lewd ways as a form of coping with her husband’s death and the frustrations of their marriage. Jessa’s brother’s wife, whom Jessa also is in love with, walks out on them leaving them both grasping for something to make sense. This is humorous and quirky with a heavy dose of morbidity, full of zany characters and awkward moments. Imagine Jenny Lawson wrote Southern gothic novels, which she should definitely do. She might write something similar to this. Back to Book Reviews

Diary of a Murderer and other stories

All four stories in this collection were darkly humorous, with brilliant contrast between conflicting forces. For instance, the title story, which is more a novella, is a fictional diary written by a former serial killer who has developed dementia. We read about his history as a serial killer while also realizing that he is in the midst of losing his grasp on reality and becoming unreliable, but was he ever reliable in the first place? In “Missing Child,” a three-year-old’s parents are devastated when their son is kidnapped. The parents’ lives crumble while they search for the child. The child is found ten years later and returned “home.” The excitement of finally finding their child contrasts with the reality of the strange teenager who now lives with them. All the stories seem to have this strong dynamic which makes them suspenseful, but the author also takes the stories in new directions. This collection also has what has to be one of my all-time favorite first lines for a short story, which starts the story “The Writer.” There are lots of brilliant ideas throughout the collection. Back to Book Reviews

The New Me by Halle Butler

Cringeworthily hilarious in the best possible way, this is a satirical look at one woman’s attempts to find her place in the workforce. A lifetime of preparing for a successful career comes up against the realities of a cynical workforce. More important than the years of education and hard work she has put in is how socially competent she is and how she dresses. More important than even that is knowing the culture of success. As they say, fake it till you make it. But some of those faking it seem to know their audience a little better. That seems to be the problem for Millie, she cannot seem to understand her audience, and no matter how hard she tries, she keeps doing the wrong thing in the most awkward kind of way, mostly without realizing it. I found this one of the most significant aspects of the novel. What she thought was normal, even appropriate behavior, was looked down upon by her coworkers, and Halle Butler uses a nice device to get this across. While the book was mostly written from Millie’s perspective a few parts come from external perspectives, her coworkers' perspectives for instance. I found this combination effective, contrasting Millie’s experience with her coworkers’ observations, and the large divide between the two: experience vs. appearance. In an article for Vulture, Hillary Kelly describes a new micro-trend in fiction she calls “repulsive realism.” She lists Ottessa Moshfegh as the queen of this micro-trend, but also includes this new book by Halle Butler. With a culture obsessed with blemish-free life, repulsive realism focuses on the repulsive, but very real parts of life. What the difference is between this and “dirty realism” or [Read more]

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Alienated, disconnected, overburdened. These are the descriptions that come to mind when I think of the two characters in this book, Connell and Marianne. Although this is ultimately billed as a love story, more than the relationship between the two characters I get the sense of all the things in the world that are weighing on them, their struggle to cope and somehow still connect with others, with each other. The story is told alternating perspectives between the two, so we get both sides to key events in their lives, communication and miscommunications. We watch each struggle to find their place in the world, search for meaning in life, negotiate power dynamics in relationships, explore the difference between public and private self, and how much anyone can really know another person. This is a beautiful novel about that great morass of time that defines every generation, the transition to adulthood. Back to Book Reviews

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

A woman lies in a hospital bed near death while the spirit of her friend’s son leads her through her memories of recent events in attempts to understand how she got to this point, and what has happened to her daughter. I kept thinking of the movie Donnie Darko while reading this book, with a creepy monotone voice in conversation with the main character. I think it works well, and it lends a full creepiness to the story. Samanta Schweblin is an expert at this type of creepy, semi-hallucinatory story and I look forward to more from her. Back to Book Reviews

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

Written in stream of consciousness style, the narrator takes a trip to the Mexican coast in search of a troop of Ukranian dwarves escaped from a Soviet circus. I like the premise. She also takes the trip spur of the moment without telling her parents, with a guy she doesn’t know very well, so it has that sneaking out at night kind of feel too. The story took a rambling route, reminiscent of Y Tu Mama Tambien, or On the Road, so I would say it is primarily a road book, but it also has some sort of mer-creature in it, so there’s that, and the Ukranian dwarves. Either way, I would say this is a book of exploration, discovery and coming of age with several bits of quirkiness thrown in. Back to Book Reviews

The Wall by John Lanchester

In the near future, the ice caps have melted and the sea level has risen making much of the world uninhabitable. The inhabitants of an island nation have built a large, concrete wall around the perimeter of the island to keep out unwanted immigrants, aka environmental refugees. Every citizen takes a turn in their life standing atop the wall as a defender, guarding the island all day, or all night, with very little in the way of comforts. If a defender fails to keep a refugee out, the defender will be set out to sea. I thought sitting on the cold wall, watching the sea for “invaders” was going to be the whole story, sort of a post-apocalyptic waiting for Godot, but the book eventually turns into a suspenseful survivalist quasi-thriller. Still, I thought the bread and butter of the story was the time the main character lived on the wall as a defender. Lanchester writes the desolation and loneliness of sitting on a cold hunk of concrete very well. Back to Book Reviews

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

On the verge of losing his battle with depression, Jim leaves his home in Alaska and returns to California where his parents, brother, kids, and ex-wife all live. He also seeks out clinical help there while tripping through all his familial reunions. Jim’s bipolar disorder is front and center in this story, almost a character in itself. The .44 that Jim always keeps within reach looms over every part of his life and is always right there, making its presence known, just like his illness. If you would like to sit in a front row seat to witness someone in the throes of a mental health crisis, you cannot do much better than this book in all its pain and relentless torment. It is a powerful portrayal of mental illness. Back to Book Reviews

The Plotters by Un-su Kim

Who doesn’t fantasize about a library full of assassins? In this alternate version of Seoul, People called Plotters pull the strings, but no one really knows who the plotters are. They hire assassins associated with houses, similar to dojos, run by masters. Old Raccoon, one such master, lives in a house he has transformed into a library and reads books. One of his assassins, Reseng, who also reads books, has lived in the library since Old Raccoon found him in a dumpster when he was just a child. Raised to be an assassin, Reseng has obediently carried out his assignments without question, but trouble brews when he goes off script and he begins to see the cracks in the system. He picks at the cracks, but it may be that by doing so he has put himself on another assassin’s hit list. I can’t help but think of Oldboy and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when reading the fight scenes. A sense of the inevitable paces the action making the fighting more about style and self-awareness than passion and brute force. Two assassins encounter each other knowing they are destined to fight. They talk shop, discuss their admiration for each other’s craft, then try to kill each other. Very civilized. It was enjoyable and a refreshing take on a book full of assassins. Back to Book Reviews

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender boxer to fight in Madison Square Garden. Having transitioned from woman to man, he pursues the opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden partly as an exploration to better understand what it means to be a man. In this memoir he records his experiences looking behind the veil of masculinity as he trains for the fight. Particularly sensitive to the physical, emotional and social changes involved in becoming a man, Thomas has a unique position to offer fresh insights into masculinity. He struggles to come to grips with his own masculinity while inhabiting one of the quintessentially masculine arenas, boxing. At one point he discusses the tension between having been a woman frightened of crossing paths with a man on a darkened street, and the realization that he now is the man on the darkened street that women are automatically wary of. Not immune to the pressures of socialization, he considers what it might mean to be a man while steering clear of toxic masculinity, which he acknowledges an unspoken pressure to conform to. Full of insights, I enjoyed following his path as he trains for the big fight, and as he tries to understand masculinity in our culture and in his own iteration of it. Highly recommended. Back to Book Reviews