From the Stacks: October + November

by Karen Biscopink in


*In order to keep better track of what I've read each month, what I loved, and what I think my friends would love, a monthly round-up is in order.*

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"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Summary: This is one of the most beautiful WWII books I've read. The novel alternates between the stories of two children on very different sides of the war: a blind girl in possession of a great treasure sought by the army, and an orphaned boy whose technical brilliance results in conscription into the Hitler Youth. Their stories overlap throughout a series of tragic, beautifully told events that read like a gothic fairy tale. 

I have recommended this book to everyone. It's unputdownable because of the storyline, but even more so because of the gorgeous prose. Doerr's expansive knowledge of basically everything (history, radios, biology, to name a few) is mind boggling to me. I have no idea how you write a book like this, but I'm so glad it exists.

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

Summary: "Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story—as only David Mitchell could imagine it."

What even is this book? I don't know but I love it like I love "American Horror Story" and culty vampire tales and the raw essence of Halloween and the dizzying effect of Escher's art. "Reality-warping" is only one way to put it; surreal is another. Houses and people appear where they shouldn't. The tangible morphs and morphs again. It gave me nightmares that I would classify as oddly enjoyable.

"California" by Edan Lepucki

Summary: You may remember this as the debut novel that Stephen Colbert lauded and made wildly popular. Set in a not-so-distant future, in which the planet is disintegrating and society as we know it has crumbled, the story centers around a young couple who set out into the wilderness to survive off of the land. Complications arise when they discover that they'll soon be introducing a baby into this unstable environment. Seeking out (and finding) a community of survivalists with their own intricate agenda threatens to disrupt the only thing the protagonists have left: their moral code. 

I went on an "apocalypse" bender this year so "California" fit into my stacks perfectly. If you're into watching society crumble and the resultant survivor scrambling, this is a great quick read. After "Wool," my expectations for end-of-days reading is pretty high so this didn't change my life, but it was enjoyable and largely interesting from a psychological standpoint.

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"The Effortless Experience" by Matthew Dixon

Summary: Everything you've ever wanted to know about the changing face of customer support, and how companies can tailor their approach to reduce effort for end-users and employees alike.

Reading work-related books can be a chore, but "The Effortless Experience" truly caught me off guard. The team that put this together shares fascinating data around generational expectations when it comes to support experiences, and the anecdotes they pepper throughout are invaluable. I can't recommend this highly enough, not only as something to bolster your work life, but to achieve a greater glimpse into relationships as a whole. I even came out of this with an exciting new idea for a poetry chapbook. Who would have thought?

 

 

 

 


From the Stacks: September

by Karen Biscopink


*In order to keep better track of what I've read each month, what I loved, and what I think my friends would love, a monthly round-up is in order.*

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Summary: An obese medium (Alison) in rural England meets a down-on-her-luck divorcee (Colette), and ends up taking her in as a sort of "life and finances" manager. The increasingly-loud spirit world, and the medium's traumatic childhood, converge upon their quirky existence. 

This book is both incredibly spooky and incredibly... I almost said funny, but that's not the right word (even though I laughed out loud on multiple occasions). Witty / clever / pointed are probably better choices. Alison's reports of what's occurring in the spirit world (from Princess Di's death to little old women hiding in broken teacups) are perfectly melodramatic and cause her a great deal of exasperation. A gang of thugs that terrorized her childhood slowly begin to regroup "on the other side," and their reappearance in her life unleashes all kinds of mayhem.

The first book of Hilary Mantel's that I've read, Beyond Black was excellent. Nightmare-inducing, but excellent.

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

Summary: An outrageous, satirical short story collection investigating the life of the "housewife" (a word that takes on different meanings in many of the pieces).

This collection is legitimately hilarious and will take about 4 hours to read. Southern snark is encapsulated at it's finest ("Well bless her heart") and there are guest appearances from vengeful ghosts, John Lithgow, a violent gang of Tampax employees. Fun, well written, and fantastically creative.

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

Summary: There is an examiner, and there is a claimant. They reside in a series of seemingly isolated towns known only as "Gentlest Villages." The claimant knows nothing of his past life, doesn't remember how to read or walk, how to dress himself or engage with other human beings. Stories are constructed, past lives are dismantled, and we gradually see more of this disintegrating, frightening world.

Favorite book of the month. Jesse Ball writes fictitious oddities that I find irresistible and charming in their "tweaked fable" type of way. 

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Summary: A YA book about a teenage girl whose boyfriend becomes a notorious high school shooter. 

I admittedly pick up anything YA when I need a "popcorn book." (This is my mom's terms for a book that can be, somewhat mindlessly, gobbled down quickly. After tackling a bunch of dense fiction this month, I needed a break. I came in with very low expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised.

While not difficult to read, the writing is solid and the storytelling is engaging. Flipping back and forth between the protagonist's present-day life (and the terrible ramifications of the shooting) and the day of the tragedy, Jennifer Brown highlights individuals, and tiny moments, that continuously expand the intrigue. 

All This Life: A Novel by Joshua Mohr

Summary: One day during rush hour, a marching band processes to the middle of the Golden Gate bridge, and each of its members dives to their death. The plot then revolves around several colorful individuals who are connected, in some way, to the event in San Francisco. 

Disclaimer: Josh is one of my favorite authors and I'm certain I'll love anything he ever writes. This particular novel is vastly different from earlier novels like Fight Song, which had me in a constant state of laughter. All This Life is a little heavier on the dark half of "dark humor." Not going to lie, I felt super depressed most of the time I was reading this book, watching people kept isolated in myriad ways wonder: "Can this really be all there is to life?"

And still: Five stars. 

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Glow by Ned Beauman

Summary: "What distinguishes a novel from a designer drug?  Words along, in the case of Ned Beauman’s third book…  This epically digressive saga follows Raf, a young South London raver, who stumbles on a multinational corporation’s shift from mining to dissemination of a customized hallucinogen.   Beauman’s prose is a mixture of speed, filigreed narration and Pynchon-esque social satire [and] Glow burns with inventive energy, generating a dark vision but much delight.”  —Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle

Holy cow this guy can write. I was astonished like, fifteen times at the beautiful sentence constructions and incredible craftsmanship of Glow. The storyline is fascinating and the characters are terribly interesting, but the writerly skill is what actually won me over. 

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Summary: No summary really needed. David Sedaris writes some essays and satirical short stories about cultural norms and politics and growing up. 

This is the first David Sedaris book I've read and I am really disappointed. Other than an essay about his difficult trip to China (which I enjoyed for mainly empathetic reasons), this book felt like wasted reading time. Maybe his other stuff is better? 


"The Wolf Border" by Sarah Hall

by Karen Biscopink in


But humanity’s demise, she thinks, is dreadful. We eke it out, limp on, medicate, become expensively compromised. For humans there will be no final status fights, no usurping, no healthy death. Decay continues, on and on. Only merciful ends come quickly or during sleep.

Set on both a reservation in Idaho and an estate in Northern England, The Wolf Border evokes an atmosphere of contained wilderness. Wildness with hard limits.

Protagonist Rachel Caine is summoned to Northern England by a wealthy Earl who requests her expertise on a spooky project: reintroducing wolves to the environment. While there, she also makes a (seemingly) rare visit to her elderly mother who is running out of time. Rachel initially refuses the Earl's offer of employment, but a series of unexpected circumstances leads her to reconsider and begin work on the wolf project. 

Author Sarah Hall

Author Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall's novel captured my attention (and affection) in a similar manner as Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior." But where Kingsolver's diction is casual, colloquial, Hall's manner of speech is distinctively, properly British. The narrative voice is incredibly polished. Imagery is built to stand in incredible contrast, but yet collectively builds a theme of "border" - reservation, assisted living facility / hospice, rural estate, game preserve. 

The protagonist also fits into this theme of fenced-in wildness. Intelligent and polished, exhibiting her own brand of reservedness, Rachel is no stranger to casual flirtation or alcohol-fueled liaisons. But even in her moments of apparent abandon, Rachel's awareness of her own control (intellectually, sexually, situationally) is ever-present. 

I very much enjoyed this introduction to Hall's work, and will certainly seek out any new releases she sends out into the world. 


*Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader's Copy.

 

 


"The Tusk That Did The Damage"

by Karen Biscopink


Tania James' newest work took me completely by surprise. Unfamiliar with her earlier writing, I had no idea what an incredible experience lay ahead of me when I agreed to review this book for TLC Book Tours.* The fact that the novel is blurbed by the likes of Karen Russell and Jonathan Safran Foer was my first hint that "The Tusk That Did the Damage" would be something magical.

The novel elegantly braids three distinct stories: a documentarian named Emma, studying alongside an animal (elephant) specialist in South India;  the brother of a young poacher; and an elephant known most commonly as The Gravedigger.

If I were to oversimplify the book thematically, I could say that these perspectives present us with the trifecta of viewpoints on animal rights. However, this would fail to take into account the truly exquisite presentation of South Indian culture, or the remarkable way basic human relationships become new and poignant in the writer's hands. 

Was he born in chains?

He was taken a calf. His mother was shot by poachers. When the forest guards found him, he was by her side.

Do you think he remembers her?

He remembers everything. That is the elephant's great gift.

After a pause in which it seemed the boy's mind had drifted elsewhere, Mani-Mathai said, "Terrible gift."

Old Man was taken with the simple truth of those words, laid side by side.

It's no small challenge to write convincingly from the standpoint of an elephant, and this was the aspect of the narrative about which I was most skeptical. James completely mastered these passages, however, and I shocked myself to realize the Gravedigger's narrations were often my favorite. 

If I had to describe my experience with this novel with a single phrase, I'd use an oxymoron: ferocious tenderness. The foreground of struggle (against government sanctions, against poverty, against interpersonal conflict and persecution) is padded with story-lines that feel almost folkloric, even though they are set in the recent past. And key to each tale is some moment of raw affection that incites a great moving-forward.  

*Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader's Copy.