Darryl by Jackie Ess
The titular Darryl is a man living in the Pacific Northwest who is going through a profoundly chaotic and confusing period of his life. Due to a healthy inheritance, Darryl doesn’t work and spends his days abusing GHB and watching his wife have sex with other men. He claims he’s a cuckold, but the other cucks on the message board he follows don’t see it that way. There is something deeply wrong with Darryl, and he doesn’t seem to realize it. Like devils & angels on his shoulder, two other men play formative roles in Darryl’s sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious revelation. Bill is a longtime friend, someone who has sex with Darryl’s wife but seems genuinely worried about our protagonist. Clive is a “therapist” brought in by his wife, who turns out to be another man just interested in fucking her. He drugs Darryl, who is more than happy to be numbed to life. Author Jackie Ess has written a brilliant, short novel about such a distinct voice. There are few books like this one, and even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about kink culture (like me), it’s a very approachable text that confronts the good & bad in people.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
Few novels go as hard as this one. I was legitimately surprised about this 1966, which I went into thinking was a crime/noir piece. It certainly has lots of crime, but it is not so much focused on those acts as they are the central character in this heart-achingly human story. Jack Levitt is born into a cruel world, and the hits keep coming. We meet him in his late teens, roaming the streets with pals to rob, steal, and numb the pain in any way that works. Eventually, Jack tries to get on the straight and narrow, but in a place as stratified as America, if you’re born poor & angry, they aren’t going to let you be anything else. We follow Jack through the carceral system and experience every meaningless victory and devastating defeat. The prison system is given a deserved savaging here as a place where no one is really reformed, just held and brutalized until they’re let go. We even follow Jack during his release, a point where the book delivers some of its roughest body blows. Hard Rain Falling is an American masterpiece, unflinching in its look at how the underclass lived and still lives.
Last Days by Brian Evenson
Kline just can’t get a break. Every time he falls asleep, it seems he wakes up in a worse situation. He’s a detective who was permanently transformed on a case years prior. A madman hacked one of Kline’s hands-off, drawing some strange people’s attention. I don’t want to reveal too much here, but this is a wild ride through cults and one person’s descent into madness or transcendence; still not sure. Brian Evenson’s short story collections A Collapse of Horses and Songs for the Unraveling of the World have been some of the best horror I’ve read. He just knows how to create a fantastically layered story with a mystery that hooks readers and insists you keep reading. Using third-person narration, Evenson puts us firmly in the perspective of Kline, never giving away anything through any omniscient writing. By the end, your mind will likely be as spun around as our “heroic” detective so that what is or isn’t real doesn’t matter anymore.
Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi
The work on my other website, The Reading Circle, has had me reading books aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 9-12). Pete is in seventh grade and is much like your average kid from early 1950s New York City. He loves the Dodgers, reading Dashiel Hammett’s crime novels, and hanging out with his best friend, Kat. However, things rapidly change when accusations of Communism are thrown at his history professor father. This leads to Pete taking on the things he’s learned from his detective stories to uncover the obscured history of his family. Part of the importance of this book is how it presents the feeling of a whole society turning against you, something experienced by so many people during the Red Scare. It will be difficult to read the novel without getting incredibly angry with how Pete is never really listened to by anyone other than Kat and his parents. There’s a profound sense of helplessness as people treat him as a spy out to undermine American society. What’s empowering is how our protagonist uses books he treasures to guide him in uncovering the truth about his world.
The Story of More (Adapted for Young Adults) by Hope Jahren
If you are an older Millennial like myself, you must come to terms with the idea that this planet is not ours. A solid argument can be made that the older generations clung to their positions of power for too long, resulting in a complete imbalance. Octogenarians run the American government, and activism is quickly becoming the realm of the young people. Hope Jahren is an American geochemist and geologist at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her best-selling book The Story of More has been adapted for younger readers around 12+. Within this book, she provides a beautifully constructed presentation of the importance of natural resources to the survival of humanity, the history of how we have been able to generate more food for the growing population, and how this growth has damaged the planet. The big question looming over all of this is, what can we do about it? Jahren doesn’t posit to have a magic solution but states that we have to develop a complete comprehension of the problem before we adopt a solution. She admits the path to getting there will be difficulties and suffering because we have delayed action for so long. Still, it is possible to reverse what is happening.
The Counterclockwise Heart by Brian Farrey
The Counterclockwise Heart concerns three characters: Alphonsus is a prince who was found by the empress’s wife. He has a clock where his heart should be, and no one quite knows how or why. Esme has been sent by the Hierophants, masters of magic, to kill the Nachtfrau, an evil witch living in the Hexen Woods. But when she meets Nachtfrau, everything the girl thought was true crumbles. And then there’s Guntram. He spent his youth speaking to the Onyx Maiden, a massive stone statue that magically appeared in his town one day. By talking to the frozen woman, he’s helped his community avoid the plagues & disasters she brought at first. How these three people’s lives intersect and the things that link them from before they were born will thrill & surprise readers. This is a coming-of-age story rife with questions & scenarios around ethics. When we are children, we often follow authority figures blindly. However, as we enter adulthood, we learn life is far more complex than it was first presented to us. The stakes are the very world they live in, watching the kingdom on the brink of war with threats that the grown-ups don’t fully understand.
Blackshirts and Reds by Michael Parenti
Michael Parenti is one of the great modern American communist voices, delivering some searing condemnations of imperialism, especially in those places where resources are violently extracted and exported back to places like the United States. In this text, he touches on how fascism presents itself as rational to seize control of society and how Communism has been destroyed by external and internal forces. I appreciate his honesty about Communism, as it helped expand my understanding of something that doesn’t have a nuanced discourse in my homeland. Parenti points out the flaws in the “siege communism” adopted by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. It was a decision that made sense for the time but ultimately helped to undermine the Soviet cause. Even better is how he beautifully outlines class analysis’s importance in all prevalent political issues, from racism to ecology. The people in power use their wealth & influence to aim a brutalized populace against each other while they shore up their own defenses. This is an excellent “beginner” text if you feel uncomfortable with the academic, dense ones (I’m right there with you).
How To Live In A World That Can’t Be Fixed by Curtis White
When you hear the term “counterculture,” you’ll likely conjure images of flower children and the hippy movement. Author Curtis White is frustrated by this because he sees the creation of a new viable counterculture as essential for human existence. The hippy image is used by the status quo to diminish counter movements because of its collapse into hedonism and the fact that it was just another commodified trend. I applaud him for pointing to darlings Ken Burns and Black Panther as examples of how the establishment attempts to collectively shape perceptions against truly radical actions. Burns’ Vietnam documentary is dissected as a piece of apologia, trying to find nobility in what was a pure atrocity on the part of the American military & government. Black Panther is shown to be propaganda enforcing traditional hierarchical power through monarchy and corporations, as well as presenting a meek & heroic CIA agent. In Black Panther, the radical figure whose perception of the true enemy is 100% correct is maligned as the villain and has to be put down. There’s so much more here, an excellent start to examining the Western way of life we so desperately cling to while it kills us: body, mind, & spirit. If you are a frustrated soul, and there are so many more these days, consider checking out this book to see many of your frustrations articulated so beautifully.