by Don DeLillo
Jack Gladney is a Professor of Hitler Studies at his Midwestern college. He’s married to Babette, his fourth wife, and they live with four children to make up their contemporary, for 1985, family. Consumerism dominates the family discourse; everything is analyzed through this critical lens. The pressures of modernity manifest in the form of a toxic airborne event that threatens to kill anyone exposed to it within 30-40 years. Death is a constant theme in this family’s life despite never really coming close to it. Their fears are based more on the concepts of mortality and the idea of being the last one left and watching the others pass away. To remedy this, Babette begins taking an experimental medication behind Jack’s back that makes her immune to these morbid thoughts but also distances her from the family as a side effect.
I was first introduced to White Noise in a class on critical analysis of media messages in college. The professor was one of my favorites, and his curriculum for this class included White Noise, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and the films Network and Being There. These four pieces of media profoundly shaped my worldview and opened my eyes to the hollowness behind much of the surface-level media of American society. I didn’t absorb everything then as well as I have years later while revisiting these things. I had forgotten many details about White Noise, so it was truly a rediscovery. The book doesn’t hold up as well as I imagined it would, but it is still a fantastic read and feels relevant to our modern state of alienation.
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters
by John Langan
This was my fourth John Langan book, but not my favorite though. I’ve previously read his novel The Fisherman (my favorite of his work) and short story collections Sefira and Other Betrayals & Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies (both excellent). Mr. Gaunt was a decent short story collection but not as good as the more recent Langan work I’ve read. The standout for me was the first story in the book, “On Skua Island,” about researchers getting stranded on a remote Scottish island where an ancient sword has kept a monstrous evil at bay. Unfortunately, the rest of the stories felt a little too distracted and meandered too much. I was pretty disappointed but didn’t mind too much. This was some of Langan’s earlier work, which has definitely improved with age. I still need to read his latest collection, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, but I am still looking forward to it.
by B.R. Yeager
Easily my favorite fiction book I read over these two months. Negative Space tells the story of Kinsfield, New Hampshire, where the teen suicide rate is rapidly rising. The story is told through the first person accounts of three young people: Amir, Jill, and Lu, who have one thing in common: They all know Tyler, a classmate at the local high school but a lover to two of them and an enigma to Lu. The narrative shifts perspective throughout each chapter, often presenting the characters’ reflections after the fact or, in Lu’s case, posts on a 4chan-like message board. A horrifying Lovecraftian nightmare is revealed, linked to a mysterious new drug called WHORL, purple & green leaves that can be smoked or chewed and cause users to see black worms emerge from people, animals, and objects.
Yeager has produced something worthy of Stephen King’s best small New England town oeuvre but far nastier. The atmosphere of bleakness washes over these characters as they witness peers kill themselves or get drug even deeper down a black hole of addiction. The horror here is similar to Jordan Peele’s work, a commentary on modern anxieties filtered through a fantastic lens. The scope here is pretty epic, but it never feels unwieldy. The pieces of the mystery are dispersed at the perfect rate, a spiral down into the abyss. If you are a fan of creepypasta, the work of Junji Ito, or cosmic & body horror, Negative Space is the perfect book to get lost entirely within.
The Mysterious Howling (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #1)
by Maryrose Wood, with illustrations by Jon Klassen
If you don’t already know, I have a second blog called The Reading Circle, where I review picture books and middle-grade chapter books to keep in touch with early education while not directly teaching. I share slightly different thoughts on the books here as they are part of my regular reading routines. The Mysterious Howling caught my eye because of its illustrations by Jon Klassen. I did an Author Spotlight on Klassen, and he is one of my favorite contemporary writer-illustrators. This book, however, did not live up to my expectations.
Penelope Lumley has just graduated from her finishing school and has taken a job as a governess at Ashton Place. When she arrives, Penelope discovers her charges are three feral children the owners found one day and have been keeping in the barn. Penelope wants to teach them Latin and all the refined subjects she was trained in, but first, she has to housetrain the kids. The book is amusing but clearly an attempt to pull in the Series of Unfortunate Events audience. The problem with that is it is far from as sharp & clever as those books, so if you are a fan of Lemony Snicket’s series, you are likely to be let down by this one.
Alice Austen Lived Here
by Alex Gino
This is a lovely middle-grade novel about a nonbinary child named Sam who learns there is a contest to pick a famous person from their home of Long Island to become a statue. Sam and their friend TJ fully expect it will be another dead white dude that wins until they learn about Alice Austen. She was a real person that became famous for her photography. Austen was also queer, living with another woman in a committed relationship for decades. Sam & TJ’s teacher is less open-minded and glosses over their entry in the contest in favor of someone already regularly recognized by the borough. A whole community of LGBTQ comes together to support the kids’ bid, and we get a very happy ending.
I love that there are books for this age group with transgender and NB characters. It’s essential that those children get representation in literature as well. I won’t say I am the biggest fan of author Alex Gino’s writing style; for my tastes, it can be a bit twee, but I think the age this is targeted at will enjoy it. If a child is unfamiliar with LGBTQ terms & concepts, they might get confused, and I think a brief glossary in the back would have been a fantastic addition. Overall, it is a quick read and a great piece of contemporary realistic fiction for kids.
by Tracey Baptiste
This is the first book in a series that centers on Caribbean folklore in the narrative. Corrine is a young girl living in Jamaica that is afraid of nothing. One night she chases an agouti (a small rodent) into the jungle and notices a pair of shining yellow eyes following her. The next day a mysterious stranger arrives in her village and seems to know the local witch. The woman is called Severine, who shows up at Corrine’s house, casting a spell over the girl’s father. It becomes apparent that this is a jumbie, a spirit from the woods that seeks to consume human life. By the end of the book, the island has become overrun with supernatural creatures, and Corrine & her friends have to work together to fight them back. It’s an okay book, a quick read, but I had a hard time getting into the story.
The Doll That Waved Goodbye and Other Scary Stories (Michael Dahl’s Really Scary Stories)
by Michael Dahl
This is from a series of middle-grade horror anthologies I’ve read to students. I like these books as the stories are relatively simple but effective. You get a mix of creepy and silly tales that every kid I’ve seen has loved. The stories included here are:
- One Hundred Words – a horror story written in just 100 words
- Don’t Let The Bedbug Bite – a babysitter notes her charge for the night is freaking out about bed bugs; it turns out he has an excellent reason to do so.
- Pickled – my favorite of the collection. Some kids get lost while biking home and find an old storm cellar that’s been sealed for a long time. Some people have been living down there for a long time.
- Dead End – another great tale, very surreal. Ren bikes down a cul-de-sac and finds he becomes trapped in an increasingly shrinking street.
- Meet the Parents – a ridiculous story about a boy learning he is adopted and meeting his unlikely biological parents
- The Doll That Waved Goodbye – a strange young girl at a summer camp wears a necklace with a baby doll’s hand as a charm. Another girl decides she wants to take it.
At the end of each book, Dahl includes a section where he explains his inspiration for each story. I like that addition because it can help guide young writers in wondering how they can keep their ideas flowing.
Attack of the Black Rectangles
by Amy Sarig King
This is my favorite of the middle-grade books I read this month. It focuses on Mac, a sixth-grade boy learning about some harsh realities. His teacher, Ms. Sett, is known for aggressively getting restrictive municipal laws and liberally censoring the books her students read. While reading a copy of The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen and found portions that describe the bodies of Holocaust victims have been blacked out. This makes him angry, and with some friends, they challenge Ms. Sett’s restrictions. At home, Mac is dealing with an estranged father who is clearly having a mental health crisis, a mother who is doing her best to remain empathetic, and a grandfather who wants to help his grandson see through the bullshit of the system.
In a time when educational censorship is at a fever pitch in the United States, a book like this is vital. The fascists have made frightening progress by taking control of many school boards and thus have a stranglehold on your kids. The adults in Mac’s life mostly speak honestly to him about what is happening. As a result, he can experience some real growth throughout the story. That doesn’t mean life is less messy, but he can understand why certain things happen and recognize his power to make a difference in the world.
by Devon Price, PhD
This year, after some suspicion, my wife and I concluded that I am on the Autism spectrum. I wanted to know more; coincidentally, this book had just come out, and it was a revelatory experience to read. Devon Price has a doctorate in Psychology and discovered his own autism as an adult after talking to a cousin who had been diagnosed. Price acknowledges that he knows so much more about neurotypical brains than his own due to the bias present in the sciences. The book is Price’s attempt to explode myths about the condition and explain just how diverse autism can be. I learned that my reticence to drive a car is something seen in many autistic people, as are my difficulties processing social interactions that are not explicitly direct.
Price’s continual emphasis is that autistic people have to work to embrace themselves as the ableism present in much of Western society pushes us to mask and hide. My own journey has proven to have highs and lows. I definitely feel more confident now as things in my life I used to beat myself up over I now understand are part of the way my brain works; they are not flaws but simply attributes. I wake up with a sense of purpose and love for myself. However, this process also has me reflecting on my childhood and pulling up some unpleasant memories of being shouted at and punished by parents who had no idea what they were doing. Because I was homeschooled, I never had enough eyes on me for some educated adult to notice I was on the spectrum. If you want a comprehensive overview of autism, I think this a perfect book, and it has me intrigued to explore more of Price’s writing on other topics.
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Working in elementary education in America caused me to grow to hate toxic positivity. The late Barbara Ehrenreich uses her cancer diagnosis as a jumping-off point to explore the “power of positive thinking” culture that is poisonously prevalent in the United States. With each chapter, the author takes on a different angle of American culture, from the corporate world to the church to pharmaceuticals to politics. Ehrenreich’s thesis is that despite how much Americans shine it on, they are ultimately not happy but simmering with anger & resentment. This is because they live in a system where exploitation is the primary mode of interaction. You are blamed for bad things in your life as if you possess complete control of every aspect of your existence.
With her science background, Ehrenreich also eviscerates claims of the power of prayer and other “think happy thoughts” strategies that have no bearing on a person’s physical or mental condition. Data shows people who live with a healthy sense of caution and aversion to destructive risk end up healthier than most. She sees the country as existing in an era of irrational optimism, where mindsets completely contradict reality and the pressing issues of our time. Published in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, the circumstances of many people’s lives have simply worsened since that time. If the American people don’t wake up and find a balance between thinking happy things and working to solve complex problems, then it will only be a matter of time until American society is in complete ruins.