Book Update – May/June 2021

Honored Guest: Stories by Joy Williams

I recently surveyed the crop of writers that made up the “freshman class” of Vintage Contemporaries. Vintage Contemporaries was a Random House imprint started in the 1980s and intended to publish paperback editions of literary authors of the era. This is where you would have found legends like Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, and many more. Among those writers was Joy Williams. Williams is a Massachusetts writer whose focus is often on the gradual decay of American life. She looks at it from all angles with middle-class characters who become disconnected from the communities they thought they would never leave. Adults are usually in failed or failing majors, and children are left to their own devices by grown-ups who are busy having affairs or in their own existential spirals. 

Honored Guest is a 2004 collection of 12 stories with a similar muted tone even when the content gets strange. The title story focuses on a high school girl and her mother, who is dying of cancer. The mother has reasonably become manic as her time draws closer and her daughter tries to maintain some sense of stability. Stories like this one read very similar to Raymond Carver’s work which I personally love. Williams also leans into Flannery O’Conner’s territory with “Charity,” where a woman escapes her troubled marriage but becomes involved with a large family on their summer vacation that becomes increasingly messy & more dangerous. Williams doesn’t always write stories that are immediately accessible but stay with her, and you’ll get something great. I don’t think every entry hits as strong as others here, but it is a good collection.


Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami

I have been reading Murakami since I stumbled across The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twenty years ago in a bookstore. I had no idea what this book was, but something about the title/cover/description hooked me. It is the longest fiction book I’ve ever read and is still one of my favorites. Murakami can be a contentious writer for some, he is definitely employing the male gaze on some of his female characters, but I think he creates interesting situations that border on the mundane & the fantastic. Of his many books, I’ve read A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance Dance Dance, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Kafka on the Shore, The Elephant Vanishes, and of course, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I wouldn’t say Men Without Women has my favorite Murkakami writing, but even decent work from this author is still quite good. Murakami often writes in the first person with narrators that resemble him, so we are hearing from a lot of aging Japanese men in this collection. His characters are almost always jazz enthusiasts who drink whiskey and enjoy the company of their house cats. There are aspects of the spirit world that appear like in “Kino,” snakes infest a neighborhood in Tokyo, and the owner of a bar receives a prophecy that ambiguously explains what is happening and sends him out of town. My favorite story was “Yesterday,” a memory told by an older man of his friend who demands the narrator date his girlfriend. The friend’s logic is that he trusts the narrator to tell him what is going on with her that she won’t share with her boyfriend. The narrator falls in love with her, but he refuses to date her and watches his friendship crumble. Murakami delivers very introspective pieces that leave you thinking & meditating on the complex relationships we have with each other.


Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca

This novella came across my radar while watching TikTok. If you’ve ever engaged in that platform, you’ve likely been led down certain nooks of interests. I have ended up in BookTok and couldn’t be happier because I am getting recommendations every time I open the app. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (or Things as I will call it for typing’s sake) is a novella set in 2000. This is an epistolary novel (novel in letters) with a twist. These are emails between two women on an LGBTQ online forum. The women involved are very lonely in their perspective lives, but their connection starts when one advertises on the platform that she’s selling an antique apple peeler. The buyer contacts her, and throughout their exchanges, we learn that the seller is struggling financially, so the buyer just gifts her some money to help out. They grow closer, and things get stranger until an intense dominant-submissive dynamic emerges. But it gets pretty grim as they go further. This fantastic modern horror story reads very quickly; you could knock it out in about an hour and a half or less. There’s nothing supernatural going on here, the horror is clearly psychological, and the things one of these participants does will definitely test the squeamishness of readers. Highly recommend this one for fans of horror literature.


A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

I spent an entire year reading this, beginning in June of 2020 and finishing it on my birthday the following year. I would say this is a must-read for anyone who genuinely wants to start deprogramming from the incessant brainwashing we endure in the United States. This text will shatter the myth of American exceptionalism and reveal how much of our own history we are not privy to. Large swaths are cut from specific periods in history textbooks, and after reading Zinn, you’ll understand why those in power would do this. For example, most people are probably unaware of the labor struggles that have been going on since July 4th, when it was announced that the wealthy could pay poor men to serve in their place in the Colonial army; riots broke out in Philadelphia on that day. Zinn centers the perspectives of the poor, the working class, the black, the native, and so on, all of those demographics that aren’t rich old white men who make up most of the standard history texts. Zinn emphasizes how racism has been employed as a divisive tactic by the monied classes to keep labor solidarity coming to fruition. A survey of history shows that when labor movements began to gain steam and racial lines were being crossed, there would be active propaganda campaigns to sow division. 

I really appreciated what Zinn chose to focus on. The updated edition only goes up to the Clinton presidency, but I love that he didn’t spend much time ruminating on Nixon when he got to the Watergate era. Instead, he voices disgust at how Nixon was thrown to the wolves by a corrupt system that benefits from our focus on the individual rather than the larger structures. In the same way, the media was singularly fixated on Trump; it allowed the bloated military and the cruelty of departments like ICE to continue unabated. We see it in real-time as neoliberals Biden and Harris have taken office only to continue inhumane policies towards refugees and continue, as power has done so for generations, to address the chasm of economic inequality in America. Coronavirus has been one of those watershed moments that really peeled the mask off the system’s apathy towards the people. As I knew it would, we’ve reached the moment where those in power have decided we will tolerate people dying from the virus. My biggest takeaway from this book is that the United States excels in one area more than others in being the chief producer of savvy propaganda about itself and its adversaries worldwide. It’s why I don’t believe the American people, as they are now, can turn the tide and change things for the better. We live in a society where people are kept liminally comfortable, just enough to be happy but just so slight as to fear losing what they have. It will take a catastrophic change for people to wake up and see that what they believe is making them happy are placebos and that a better world is possible. However, something that catastrophic in scale could mark the end of the United States and humanity as a whole.

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