I decided to make a quarterly update about the books I’ve been reading. This was done because I have a hard time writing reviews without just recapping and spoiling the fiction books. Honestly, for some of these books, I could write papers as I did back in school. However, I’d like to keep a little more concise and share some titles and necessary information about them in the hopes you go out and pick up a book that hooks you.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid
A narrator tells us about her trip to boyfriend Jake’s family home out in the rural environs of some darkness consumed place. She recalls how she and Jake met and the development of their relationship, eventually admitting to the reader she’s planning on breaking up with him when they return from this visit. Something feels off during the car ride, but things genuinely get bizarre when the narrator and Jake arrive at his parent’s home. You’ll likely recall shades of David Lynch in the surreal and subtle horror of the encounter. The novel also owes much to the classic Gothic genre, with a contemporary American twist. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a fast read, it hooks you quickly, and the flow encourages you not to put the book down. Charlie Kaufman is in production on a film version of the novel starring David Thewlis and Toni Colette as the parents; I suspect their portion of the story will get a more significant focus in the movie.
Mouthful of Birds: Stories by Samantha Schweblin
Schweblin is an Argentine writer who immediately had me recalling Jorge Luis Borges, painting surreal and sometimes magical realist landscapes that walk the border of horror. In the opening story, “Headlights” we are following a jilted bride wandering down a seemingly deserted highway, the scenario quickly turns into a waking nightmare that breaks reality. The story serves to set the tone of what is to come. In “Toward Happy Civilization” a man gets stuck at a railway station when the ticket agent refuses to alert oncoming trains that a passenger is waiting. The man ends up falling into servitude with other passengers the ticket agent has pulled this same trick on. “The Digger” is a perfect little horror story about a man who comes to a rented beach house only to discover a stranger obsessively digging a hole outside and acting like he’s taking orders from the vacationer. If you’re interested in stories that have the aesthetic of the uncanny and the weird, this is one of the best recent collections you could pick up.
North American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
I first discovered Ballingrud through Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections and went on to read his novella The Visible Filth, which hit all the right buttons for subtle, nuanced horror. Ballingrud managed to consistently and satisfyingly subvert my expectations with every story. No, he will not reveal the grand horror to you because what’s worse are the humans involved. “S.S.” is a starkly relevant story about a young man courting the white supremacy movement. His dark secret is his decrepit mother he keeps locked up at home who may or may not be a vampire. “Wild Acre” opens with a werewolf attack and the monster is never seen again. Instead, the narrator, a building contractor finds his business crumbling and the widow of one victim watching her life fall apart. It’s a very disconcerting story about the powerlessness of the narrator to fix anything after this one event in his life. Ballingrud presents stories about traditional modes of masculinity failing, and his male characters are confronted with the horror of the system they thought would always work falling around their heads.
Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
This book is a strong contender for my pick of the year already. Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighborhood have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this quarter Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.
Pale Horse Rider by Mark Jacobson
Before Alex Jones and the idiocy of InfoWars, there was William Milton Cooper. Cooper published his conspiracy theorist manifesto Behold a Pale Horse in 1991, and since then it has been quoted by people are varied as the Wu-Tang Clan and Timothy McVeigh. Journalist Marc Jacobson tells Cooper’s story from the beginning, using his influence in feeding the culture with wild conjectures as a means to talk about how we’ve gotten to the present state. However, the book never loses its focus on Cooper the human being, an incredibly complicated and unsympathetic figure who left behind a trail of wives and children before settling in Arizona. I’d consider this a vital read for anyone wanting to understand the insanity of Trump Deep State paranoia and the Pizzagate conspiracy. This is the bridge that brought the John Birch Society to the internet age.
The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Zizek
I am a big fan of Zizek though I’ve just dipped my toes in the shallowest of waters at this point. I’ve read this book and watched his two documentaries. He’s a socialist with some very surprising takes on contemporary economics, and his self-deprecating style and emphasis on humor as a way to connect across cultures appeals to me. In this text, he spends much time detailing the looming threat of neoliberal authoritarianism across the globe. He’s against the European Union but also thinks Brexit was a profoundly stupid idea. Zizek works hard to show the reader why China is the threat we should be worried about more than Russia. Much time is spent analyzing how the elite class has become so ideologically distanced from everyone else that the working class is viewed as incapable of ruling themselves; therefore the creep of authoritarianism is on the rise. Like myself, he sees the Trump era/Brexit/right wing rise in Europe as a global moment where we need to think instead of acting without a plan.
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
Continuing my series of upbeat non-fiction reads…The Uninhabitable Earth is a come to Jesus book that doesn’t mince words about the ongoing global climate crisis. Like a dark travelogue, Wells takes us through what the world will be in the next decade and the next century if the global temperature average increases by 2-4 degrees Celsius. The outlook is very dire, with desertification occurring north of the equator as temperatures rise. Cities become near uninhabitable, and food production is slowed as the number of nutrients in crops and livestock deplete. There will be an unavoidable refugee migration, more massive than what we are currently experiencing, due to the inability to produce food and the environment becoming too harsh for human survival. Wells also details how we can see this beginning now, explaining that a lack of resources directly fuels the Syrian refugee movement due to the environment. It’s a great read, it won’t uplift you, but sometimes we need to be brought back down to Earth.