The White Book by Han Kang

Beautifully written. Very short, but beautifully written. Momentary fragments build into a story about mortality and the color white. Crossing genres of poetry, memoir and fiction, each fragment finds structure in something white that hints at mortality. Lacking a traditional storyline each moment reveals impressions of an underlying story, the story of the narrator’s older sister’s very brief life, and how her very tangible absence weighed on her family and the narrator. Back to Book Reviews

Don’t skip out on me by Willy Vlautin

Horace Hopper dreams of leaving behind his life working on a farm to become a Mexican professional boxer, even though he’s not Mexican. The owners of the farm where he works have essentially fostered Horace since he was a young child and they are concerned about his future and the harsh life of boxing he wants to pursue. Horace’s story is about determination, and holding onto your dreams, and about the costs of this as well. This story is filled with humanity, and is beautifully written in spare prose. Now would be a good time to read this (or any other Willy Vlautin book you’ve been meaning to read) in preparation for his visit to the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library on March 11th. Don’t miss the soundtrack performed by Willy himself and his band Richmond Fontaine. Yes, this book has a soundtrack. Back to Book Reviews

If, Then by Kate Hope Day

Kate Hope Day has woven several thought-provoking strands into this story about possibilities. She delves into philosophy, domestic struggle, environmental science, conspiracy theories, and quantum physics while developing captivating characters and an engrossing story. The book is set in the community of Clearing, Oregon: a town not too dissimilar from Corvallis, and it explores the interlocking lives of four neighbors and the possibilities their lives and decisions represent. They begin to see phantasms, specters of themselves, possibilities of alternate lives they could have lived, or maybe even do concurrently live in a different reality.  The best kind of books, as far as I’m concerned, promise even more on a second reading, which this one does. Back to Book Reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Silvie narrates this story about that time her family pretended they lived in the Iron Age in the north of England. Her domineering father, a bus driver and history buff, arranged for the opportunity to tag along with an anthropology professor and a group of his students to spend two weeks re-enacting life in the Iron Age as accurately as possible. The two men engross themselves in the experience evaluating the authenticity of every aspect, but tension builds between the lifestyle of the Iron Age and contemporary sensibilities, particularly in regards to how women are treated. I found this story surprisingly engaging even though the dialogue was a bit difficult to follow at times. Though, this may have been intentional to give the novel more of a dream-like quality, maybe like a fever dream. But what is the dividing line between a fever dream and gaslighting? Back to Book Reviews

Hark by Sam Lipsyte

This book satirizes the self-help industry and religious fanaticism, reminiscent of Lamb by Christopher Moore or Monty Python’s Life of Brian, yet of somewhat lesser quality. Hark Morner is an ordinary man who stumbles into the self-help industry with his theory of “Mental Archery” and is quickly hoisted up as a guru by publicists/managers who see his marketing potential. Hark tours presenting his simple message to enwrapped audiences. But does he even really have a message? During his motivational performances I couldn’t help but think of Tom Cruise in Magnolia who took himself way too seriously. Hark, unlike Cruise’s character, is not a misogynist but similarly takes himself too seriously, which leads to some humorous moments. Overall, I would have liked more Hark and less of the people surrounding him, all of whom were significantly less interesting or amusing than Hark. Back to Book Reviews

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

I would describe these as vignettes rather than short stories, but what really is the difference these days? The “stories” all feel rather jarring in effect. I felt thrown into the middle of them, trying to make sense while reading along, and at the end I generally did not find any sort of resolution. Yet, I enjoyed the experience. Most of the stories have a slight element of weirdness or absurdity to them, which I found wonderful. Schweblin’s fascinating mind and storytelling abilities make this collection work. Back to Book Reviews

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The narrator in this book desperately wants to do what is best for his son, he wants to keep him from turning black. Sounds controversial, but this is satire, biting and uncomfortable satire, along the lines of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. The unnamed narrator is a black man. His son is biracial, but presents as white, except for a black birthmark that seems to be slowly expanding across his face. Set in a near future Southern US that has codified racism into its laws, the narrator wants to give his son a better chance, considering the circumstances, so he does everything he can to fight back the birthmark with new, experimental demelanization treatments. Yet, many forces oppose him, including the boy’s mother. This is a thoughtful, important book about racism, identity, and conformity. Back to Book Reviews

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

You can find nearly every genre of fiction in this dynamic collection of stories, from a fairly standard relationship story to psychological horror, to speculative fiction and magical realism. Fairly consistent throughout the collection though is the focus on relationships and the power dynamics within relationships. In most of the stories the power dynamics become strained to the point of breaking, and the interesting part is watching what breaks, and how. As with almost all short story collections, some were gems and some were not so much to my liking. Some were weird (in a good way, a very good way) and some were mundane (in a less good way). One story, “the Good Guy” seems as though the first half was well fleshed out and well-crafted and the second half was more of a plot sketch, which I found disappointing. To me, Matchbox Sign was a standout. It explores the boundaries between insanity and misunderstanding. Altogether, I thought it was a very good collection, with some stories that have stuck with me. Back to Book Reviews

Looker by Laura Sims

The main character of this novel is a hot mess. She is going through a divorce, is obsessed with her neighbor who is a famous actress, and her reproductive clock is ticking. The narrator unravels, and it’s hard not to find it entertaining. There are so many deliciously awkward moments, some you may even identify with from your own awkward situations or brief, unacted-upon impulses. Her obsessions mirror our culture’s stalkerish treatment of celebrities. Our need to know everything about them, our desire to imitate their styles and behaviors so we can be just like them. Or, in this day of social media, the promise of Instagram or Pinterest, that if you can just do this thing like you see in the post, then you can have the glamorous life it portrays. This story was fairly brief, but was a darkly humorous and engrossing read. Back to Book Reviews

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

Three friends find themselves caught in the crossfire of race riots after a Muslim “bredda” murders an off-duty British soldier. Told from multiple perspectives, the three friends each narrate the story in their own voices using “road slang,” capturing the culture of their neighborhood. One of the three, Yusuf, struggles between his father’s peaceful teachings of Islam and the new Imam’s radicalization in the face of the xenophobic backlash against Muslims. Themes of home and belonging stream through the conflicted characters who try to understand their identity and where they belong, feeling conflicted between the different cultures each of them inhabit and their own backgrounds as second generation immigrants. I enjoyed reading this book. I especially enjoyed the language and culture that infused the narration, and the complexity of the characters. Back to Book Reviews