Book Update 2019 – April – June

Fiction
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
I’d heard much acclaim about this short story collection and figured it was time to sit down and read it finally. I’m thrilled I did. Machado reminded me a lot of Kelly Link, weaving themes of feminism and horror into stories that stand strongly as genre pieces or a literary piece to be dissected. There’s an incredible inventiveness to the stories Machado tells. She repurposes the old folktale/urban legend about the girl the green ribbon around her neck to tell a story about a woman having her sexuality slowly but surely stolen from her over the course of decades. There’s a tale about a store clerk uncovering the horrific truth behind the seams in the prom dresses she sells that is chilling. The stand out work is the novella “Especially Heinous” that starts as TV Guide-style episode synopses of Law & Order: SVU. Things get strange when a narrative strand begins to connect these summaries, and we see a story unfolding of evil twins and demon possession. It’s one of the most ingenious ways to twist how a horror story can be told and well worth the read.

Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
The biggest selling point of this collection is that it repackages the novella The Visible Filth, which I previously reviewed here. However, this book has some of the most fantastic horror stories I’ve read all year, revolving around the intersection of our world and the forces of Hell. “The Maw” is a horror story that brought me to tears. The ground opens up, and demonic forces emerge that cordon off a portion of a city. Oscar escapes with his only friend, his dog. At some point, his dog runs off, and Oscar is convinced she’s gone back to his old apartment in the occupied area of the city. He employs a teenage guide, Mix, who keeps trying to get Oscar to turn back. This story combines the best of Clive Barker’s hellish imagery with heart aching pathos about love and not having that love returned. The collection is bookended by stories that create a cycle, “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Butchers Table.” The first story is in contemporary New Orleans, where a mob boss forces a man to journey out into the swamp and recover an artifact. The second story is a magnificent novella that is the story of that artifact and how it came to be. “The Butchers Table” is Pirates of the Caribbean through a demonic filter with so many tense triggers that lead to a Grand Guignol of a finale. We follow a group of Satanists who have chartered a pirate vessel to take them to the borders of Hell. Everyone has a secondary motive, and it all culminates in something so nasty and satisfying. It’s a bunch of bad guys getting everything they deserve, described deliciously.

China Dream by Ma Jin
In 2013 the term “China dream” became popularized due to Xi Jinping’s presidential campaign. Since then it has come to ensconce the entire ideology of Jinping’s now lifetime reign as ruler of China and implies that there is some idealized mix of future and past, a new nostalgia that paves a way towards the future that the Chinese people can make come to pass. Part of the way that happens is by the erasure of historical fact, the Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, and the softening of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Writer Ma Jin has been banned from mainland China since he authored a text on Tibet, and this newest novel is his response to the Jinping era of Chinese politics. In this contemporary science fiction tale, we follow Ma Daode, the Director of the China Dream Bureau. His grand plan is to construct a chip that allows the government to overwrite people’s dreams and inner thoughts to be more in tune with the national mission. The more we learn about Daode, the more he becomes both grotesque and sadly sympathetic. The events in his life begin bringing up his memories of the Cultural Revolution and his role in the murder of his parents. The closer he gets to hold a mass wedding anniversary celebration, the more dangerous his recollections become, and they threaten his standing in the Party.

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom
This is pure Flowers in the Attic level paperback pulp and damn; it’s just fun. The book is composed of two novellas, the titular one and the second “Beauty Is…”. In the first story, we follow Sally Ann, a new bride who ends up trapped in a series of tunnels beneath her family’s property. Years go by with her surviving on what she can scrounge up in the darkness, guided only by the voice of her deceased boyfriend. Eventually, she emerges with some big surprises for her family, who presumed she’d run away. There’s subtle hints of Lovecraft in the way the underworld shapes and twists Sally Ann, and it’s clear this is a story with a horrific conclusion. The more developed tale is “Beauty Is…” which tells of Martha, a middle-aged mentally challenged woman left without her parents in the big farmhouse she grew up in. The townsfolk are very kind and take care of Martha. The novella jumps between Martha’s present-day third-person perspective to her late mother’s life getting married and being brought to the middle of nowhere in this farm community. Martha’s mother was a healer, able to lay her hands on the sick and cure them, an act her husband begrudgingly believes will come back to haunt them. I could see the second story being the more divisive, but it speaks to Engstrom’s strengths at building a complex and sympathetic character.

Sefira and Other Betrayals by John Langan
John Langan jumped to my list of must-read authors after I consumed his award-winning novel The Fisherman last year. This short story collection showcases his range in types of stories he can tell, not just the Lovecraft-inspired Fisherman. None of the evil presences detailed in this book line up precisely with monsters you’ve heard of but they have just enough familiar touches they will feel like something you’ve seen before. In “Sefira” & “The Third Always Beside You” there is a something akin to a succubus but quite different, one instance is alien and insectoid while the other is heartbreaking and human. Of this collection of the eight stories, there are a couple of standouts that I enjoyed immensely. “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos” follows two military veterans who were caught up in an Abu Ghraib-like scandal, where a mysterious torturer Mr. White did unspeakable things to Arabic prisoners of war. The veterans’ former commanding officer calls them in to help track down Mr. White with the hint at settling the score of how these people were made to suffer in the public eye. The descriptions of Mr. White and the brief visions the protagonist has during the story are deeply unsettling. The other story that I keep thinking about is “Bloom” a cosmic horror story about a husband and wife discovering what appears to be a medical transplant cooler on the side of the road. Once we start to learn more about the husband’s father, more layers of the mystery are peeled away, and this chance discovery is revealed to be something planned. A tremendous subtle horror collection that revels in its slow burn and produces some great character-centered stories.

Non-Fiction

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty
This text is a transcript of a series of lectures given by Richard Rorty at Harvard University. The talks are composed of three parts: the first is about the need for national pride to motivate the improvement of the nation, the second is that purist thinking that claims any instances of hypocrisy invalidates a viewpoint are toxic for progress, and the final part is a series of appendices and recommended readings. Published in 1999, the text feels remarkably prescient in detailing the schisms that have arisen in the American Left, mainly how some corners specialize in the politics of shame. Rorty argues that to achieve that progressive land in our dreams, we have to actively spotlight victories that motivate us towards the end cause. He doesn’t think we should wear rose-colored glasses and ignore harsh realities, but he had seen a trend in rhetoric and political discussion towards a disdain for America. Through the right wing coopting of “being patriotic” many left wingers have felt uncomfortable participating in these celebrations, worried that they will be endorsing an increasing fascistic rewriting of our shared history. The Vietnam War is, of course, one of the chief moments that this change turns on. Rorty cites liberals of the past and the progressive patriotism of FDR era Left-wing politics as an example of how we can critique the nation while still celebrating it. He addresses the fact that hypocrisies will arise but passionately emphasizes that getting hung up on every perceived hypocritical notion encourages the Left to withdraw and therefore lose their place on the stage of ideas. This is a good reminder for myself, who can get hung up on purity, and it encourages me to find that balance between my principles and pragmatic thinking.

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
Vitale is not out to demonize individual officers or departments; instead, he’s interested in examining the myriad roles we have assigned to police that are in direct contrast to their intended purpose. He starts by outlining how the birth of municipal police forces came to be, mainly a body of force for cities to use in reaction to labor protests, beginning in London and eventually coming across the Atlantic to Boston and New York City. He goes on to look at specific areas where police have been employed and how inappropriate that is. Vitale looks at the injuries and deaths that occur when police are expected to deal with people that have a mental illness, behavior problems in schools, homelessness, drug addiction, and border security. Vitale makes a compelling case that all of these societal issues would be much better handled by health professionals with police taking a backseat approach to only intervene in the most extreme cases. He’s able to explain how providing housing and health programs with fidelity does more to alleviate the poverty that leads to the police becoming involved in these venues. It’s a well written and thoroughly researched text that cuts through the noise of online arguments to lay out a clear case with solutions of how we can lower the number of police-related deaths in America.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy
This is the first non-fiction text in a long time that made me cry reading its final pages. Beth Macy is a writer who has spent decades living in and studying the Appalachian region and looking at labor issues. She details the history of opioids in rural areas, going back to talk about morphine prescriptions post-Civil War but mainly the rise of Oxycontin in the 1990s which has led to an increase in heroin addiction in our present time. Macy spent time getting to know the doctors, law enforcement, drug users, drug dealers, and parents personally affected by this epidemic and can tell their stories as part of a broader mosaic of an often ignored and under-detailed horror sweeping through the country. Macy keeps coming back to a young woman named Tess who was raised in a loving and supportive family but due to the spread of opioids in her community ended up addicted and caught in that frustrating cycle of recovery/relapse. During this time, Tess becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child that manages not to have too many health issues related to her drug usage. Tess can’t get things on track mainly due to a lack of truly effective treatment methods in her area. My biggest takeaway from this text is that medicine-assisted treatment (MATs) needs to be on the table rather than just offering a one size fits all drug treatments. People seem stuck on the idea that being an addict is a criminal issue, rather than health; therefore, they balk at approaches like clean needle exchanges and methadone. For me, the primary goal is to keep the addict alive so that treatment can take place. You cannot rehab a dead drug addict. There’s a profound lack of understanding by the populace of the way drugs alter brain chemistry, making it near impossible to go cold turkey. Dopesick is a fantastic text that everyone should read; it is about one of the most urgent social issues of our time, and I know I was woefully undereducated on the details.

Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell
This slim book sets out to develop a third way of writing fiction. First, author James Scott Bell defines the two opposing views of writing: plotters and pantsers. The former have the whole skeleton of their book planned out and often create detailed character bios. The latter sit down and write and see where it takes them. Bell’s method centers around The Golden Triangle, starting with the middle of the story in the “Mirror Moment.” That is the moment where the central character’s principles and goal are in question, whether it be from internal or external forces. This is that scene where the character may accept the fact they won’t make it out of this situation alive or that they are fighting a losing ideological battle. Bell argues that by writing this moment first, you automatically inform yourself as to where your character should start and where you want your character to end up. He describes how he went back to familiar movies and books and examined what happened in the very middle of these stories, finding that they all have this Mirror Moment in common. It’s an interesting method of writing that I might play with, and it definitely will have me rewatching films to see when and what their Mirror Moment looks like.

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