Book Update – July-August 2019

Fiction

Song for the Unraveling of the World: Stories by Brian Evenson

I have yet to read any of Brian Evenson’s novels, but I have enjoyed his short stories so far. His first collection, A Collapse of Horses was tremendous, but this volume is even better. He’s very confident in the work and can present multiple perspectives without ever being reductive about mental illness. There are quite a number of characters who could be considered mentally ill, but they never get presented as tropes. In “Room Tone” a young filmmaker is obsessed with getting the ambient noise of a filming space. However, the house he shot his movie in has a new owner that wants to be left alone. The director just can’t move past this and goes to extreme lengths to get his recording. In “Born Stillborn” a patient believes his psychiatrist is visiting him at night as he tries to go to sleep, asking the real questions. His daytime sessions are full of false questions with secret messages the doctor is sending. “Leaking Out” is a wonderfully simple horror tale about a drifter seeking refuge in an old house. The premise is classic, but the monster living in this place is nebulous and terrifying. “The Tower” is a dark fantasy apocalypse about what might be a vampire who comes to a scattered settlement of survivors. This story was one of my favorites and created such a fleshed-out world in so few strokes that it made me want to explore this world even more. “Lather of Flies is a mind-being horror story about a reclusive director’s lost film which goes to some fantastic places. This is one of the most substantial short story collections I’ve read this year, which says a lot because I’ve consumed some great ones.

You Should Have Left by Brian Kehlmann

This familiar and straightforward horror novella packs a surprisingly big punch. The story is presented in the form of the diary of a screenwriter. He’s brought his family to a secluded AirBnB to get away from the noise and focus on his work. The layout of the house is continuously confusing to the narrator, who finds himself getting lost in rooms he thought were on the other side of the building. After a strange encounter with a shopkeeper, while getting supplies in town, the very laws of physics and reality appear to be bending in this house. The narrator can see things behind himself, and his reflection is gone from the mirrors. It quickly becomes apparent that there is an evil force in this place, but the narrator struggles to discern the intent. You will be reminded of stories like The Shining and cosmic Lovecraftian horror. I thought about Jac Jemec’s The Grip of It, another short avant-garde haunted house story. 

The Collection by Bentley Little

This is the best bang for your buck, 32 short horror stories that are all over the place. With any short story collection, you’ll find ones you love, ones you hate, and all the stuff in the middle. Author Bentley Little just straight up loves all types of horror and finds ways to give his readers a sample of everything. Little offers a brief preface before each tale to provide a note on his inspiration or how he was commissioned to write this particular story. The most visceral and potent to me was “Life With Father,” the story of a patriarch who is obsessed with recycling to an upsetting degree. It’s told from the point of view of his eldest daughter who has normalized this insane behavior along with her siblings. There’s a breaking point, and it ends on a strangely happy note. “The Washingtonians” is a delightfully bizarre alternate history that frames the first president and the founding fathers as child-eating ghouls. “Skin” sees a family stopping on a road trip and discovering the historical home they are visiting is made of human skin. This has rippling effects on them all after returning home. “The Man in the Passenger Seat” is a surreal waking nightmare coming out of the question ‘What if you got in your car and a strange man was just sitting there refusing to leave?’ Little loves mixing dark comedy with his work but also knows when a story needs to be straightforward and bleak.

Growing Things: Stories by Paul Tremblay

I don’t love everything Paul Tremblay has written, but when I do love one of his works, I really enjoy it immensely. This collection has some pieces that didn’t land right with me, but it also has some absolutely phenomenal tales. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” has the narrator reflecting on a childhood trip to a beach community slowly revealing a dark event that happened on vacation. When you reach the end and realize who the narrator has been telling this story to it flips the whole narrative on its head. “Where We Will All Be” is fast and doesn’t waste time getting to the point, as a young man watches his life crumbling around him in the wake of an elusive world-altering event. “The Ice Tower” is wonderfully Lovecraftian without feeling like fan fiction, taking the cosmic polar horror of “Into the Mountains of Madness” and reframing it around a strange crystalline tower being scaled by explorers. This collection also includes “Notes for the ‘Barn in the Wild,’” an homage to Laird Barron that gives us the fragments of a journal and annotations from an evil entity that has gotten its claws into the narrator’s mind.


Non-Fiction

Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left by Ben Burgis

This slim (136 page) volume from the fantastic Zero Books offers a left-wing alternative the conservative logic bros by reframing a strong background in logic as a powerful tool in the intellectual toolbox. Burgis argues that for Left ideas to make any headway they need to be able to persuade not the person they are debating, but the audience overhearing the conversation. What Burgis offers is a short introductory course to formal logic and logical fallacies. There are tons of examples, and he does an excellent job of hitting the key points just enough that a reader will want to seek out further development in argument. 

The Politics of Down Syndrome by Kieron Smith

Another book from Zero Books, this appealed due to my school having a student with Down syndrome attending and seeing how there is a lot of accommodations while other systemic deficits still exist. Smith points out the pre-existing prejudice for what is rarely a life-threatening condition. Down syndrome is something automatically screened for in pregnant women while other more severe conditions don’t get such a treatment. There’s an unspoken disdain for the condition with people born with Down syndrome said to be “suffering” from it while there’s no inherent pain. Smith argues that this is rooted in capitalist thought which sees average intelligence as the key to mass production and that people with Down syndrome aren’t able to easily fit into that restrictive mode. There should be a place in our society for people who diverge from what has long been considered “the norm” and that empathy should take precedence over efficiency and productivity. 

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason by Chapo Trap House

I discovered Chapo in a roundabout way while listening to Sam Seder’s The Majority Report and absolutely love them. They are genuinely irreverent, not some corporate programming coopting the tropes of rebellion. The book is genuinely funny and topical, tearing down the stupidity of backward conservatives and centrist libs who are seemingly terrified to stand up for anything. Weirdly I was reminded of Dave Barry Slept Here, that humorists overview of the States, but the Chapo book is actually funny. They take pleasure in eviscerating some of the “top lib minds” of our day like Matthew Iglesias and the crew at Pod Save America. There’s also a delightful section that expressed everything I hate about Aaron Sorkin and his grating self-satisfied rich lib crap writing. If you are someone who finds the mainstream political parties to be insufficient progressive, then Chapo is the place for you.

I Like To Watch: Arguing Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum

Nussbaum has been a voice in television criticism for decades and here is a collection of some of her best pieces. She starts off with an article on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was the series that spurred her interest in examining television as an essential cultural artifact. She loves The Sopranos and makes a damn good argument for why it is the last best show about antiheroes. There’s even some exploration of shows long past but with a significant cultural impact, like All in the Family. The highlight of the whole collection is “Confessions of a Human Shield” that explores the importance of the #metoo movement on popular media and Nussbaum’s own complicity in trying to cover for her “favorites,” finally admitting that she knew all along it was wrong to carry water for them. In this same piece, she tackles that old problem, so many people are wrestling with if you can enjoy the art when the artist has done extremely reprehensible things. 

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield

This is a fantastically researched and well-written chronicle of the life of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Fifield gives a strong amount of background to understand the context of this man in the history of his troubled country. She also works to establish the mindset of the average North Korean in the same way Masha Gessen outlined the “The Soviet Mind” in The Future is History. Kim Jong Un is an intentional enigma to his own people and the rest of the world as a way to cloud the media from reporting accurately about him. His marriage was never formally announced which left his own subjects confused about a woman he was seen attending events with. Fifield also submits corrections to some exaggerated myths, particularly Kim Jong Un having his uncle torn apart by dogs. The uncle did get executed but likely by the more common firing squad method. If you want a glimpse into a nation that is vital to understand in our age, you need to pick this up.

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