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Book Talk with Jessica

Each Monday on our Facebook page, Library director, Jessica Zellers, will talk about a book that’s available for you to check out.  We will feature some of the talks here.

The Only Good Indians

Stephen Graham Jones

It’s spooky season, and today is Indigenous People’s Day, so this week I’m talking about The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. (And for audiobook listeners, the narrator is Shaun Taylor-Corbett, also of Native descent.)

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This was one of last year’s buzziest horror novels, and it garnered a ton of critical acclaim. It follows the story of four Indian men who were buddies in their younger days. Years later, one of them has died, and the others have grown apart, but a hunting incident from their past will bring them together again in very unpleasant ways. The elk depicted on the cover plays a significant role. If you have never put “elk” and “vengeance” in the same sentence, that is about to change.

I will confess that I personally didn’t take to the book, but I see why other people did, and I have no qualms suggesting it to other readers, with one big caveat: you must be able to tolerate gruesome violence, including violence against animals.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Road

Cormac McCarthy

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a gruesome story about the end of the world. I’m sure we’ve all imagined ourselves in these settings. When civilization collapses, I’ll be joining up with people who are proficient in arms, and in the long term, I’ll seek out farmers and gardeners. (I myself have zero practical skills, literally none, so I’m hoping the ragtag band of survivors will keep me on humanitarian grounds. Perhaps I should consider the strategy of my friend Ann, who plans to sprinkle herself in Tabasco so the zombies will eat her right away.)

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The thing is, when I daydream about heroically surviving the apocalypse based on wits alone, there’s always food around. I’m worried about aliens or contagions, not starving to death. But in McCarthy’s near-future hellscape, the world’s surviving humans have already picked over the stored food in grocery stores and home pantries, and nothing new will grow. There is no more agriculture, and there are no more animals. You can’t just pop into the woods to shoot a deer. And that means it’s hard to join forces with other people, because they may or may not be cannibals.

Cormac McCarthy is one of America’s best living writers, arguably the very best. I will take him over Jonathan Franzen any day. His themes are dark and violent, and his prose can be really difficult to get into, but The Road is uncharacteristically accessible. There are two main characters, a man and his son, and they spend their lives walking along a road, trying to find preserved food from the before times. It’s as bleak as it sounds.

This is a work of literary fiction as well as dystopic science fiction. I would also call it horror fiction; quite apart from the things I’ve already mentioned (cannibals, no food, mass death), there is one passage with a spooky old house that ranks up there with the scariest scenes in literature.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

 

Have you read any of the top 10 most-challenged books of the year?
https://bannedbooksweek.org/about/
 
Number ten on that list is The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas and magnificently narrated by Bahni Turpin.

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I don’t read a lot of Young Adult. I do not have patience for teenagers describing their crushes or listing their musical preferences. I am grouchy and middle-aged. Nor do I read a lot of mainstream fiction. I like stories with spaceships and werewolves.

But you don’t have to be the target audience to appreciate a book. The Hate U Give is outstanding. The narrative centers around the death of a young black man, shot by a white police officer, told from the perspective of 16-year-old black girl, Starr, who witnesses the shooting. The book features believable characters, dramatic but realistic action, and thoughtful themes of race, class, crime, and violence.

I don’t care for message fiction, where an author hits you over the head with the theme and tells you what to think. That’s not the case here. For instance, when community riots break out, some of the characters participate in the violence and some of the others don’t. Angie Thomas doesn’t tell you who’s right or who’s wrong. She tells you why people make the choices they do, and it’s up to you to decide if they did the right thing.

And if you listen to audiobooks–or if you’re interested in trying one–this is such a good listen. Bahni Turpin does a range of different characters, and she packs so much emotion into Starr’s voice.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro

 

When The Buried Giant came out in 2015, I decided not to read it because of a tepid review. This was a mistake. It is such a lovely book. I badgered my mom into reading it before I was finished and now I would like to badger all of you. I might also note that, a couple of years after that ho-hum review, Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and they do not hand that out to just anyone.

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This is a fantasy set a few decades after the death of King Arthur, though it’s unlike any quest fantasy I’ve read. The main characters are an elderly couple of Britons, Axl and Beatrice, who leave the safety of home to go in search of their estranged son. The journey is only a few days’ walk, even at a slow pace with lots of breaks, and much of the plot development is just people talking. It’s got such a gentle, melancholy feel.

But there are scenes of violence and action and terror, and the final chapter, although not violent in a gory sense, left me reeling. I was so shaken I actually went on Reddit for answers. REDDIT, people. I was desperate.

David Horovitch does a fine job with the narration, if you enjoy audiobooks. I recommend The Buried Giant with great enthusiasm, but only if you’re okay with Kazuo Ishiguro roughing you up emotionally.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff

 

Like most people, you’ve probably wondered what would happen if someone mixed Jim Crow racism with eldritch horror but made it kind of wacky, more like Scooby Doo than H. P. Lovecraft. Matt Ruff has answered that question with Lovecraft Country, a series of interconnected short stories starring two Black families in 1950s Chicago.

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The hard part of the book is the full-throttle racism, which manifests as overt, Klan-style violence, as well as more subtle things like housing and employment discrimination. The easy part of the book is the horror. It’s filled with common horror elements (ghosts, creepy cultists, alien space monsters, animated dolls) but the atmosphere is campy rather than terrifying. That was my impression, at least, but your mileage may vary. I pretty much don’t get scared by horror novels.

Matt Ruff’s writing feels fresh and inventive, with fun characters and ridiculous plot twists, like the heist scene where the object of interest, a spell book, is hidden in an extra dimension of a museum. And I haven’t seen the television adaptation, but if you are mourning the loss of Michael K. Williams, he has a starring role.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders

 

Do you enjoy being emotionally pummeled and crying a lot? Do I have the book for you! Reading Lincoln in the Bardo is like someone slamming you into a concrete wall (I assume).

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When I first stumbled upon the short stories of George Saunders I became an instant fan, this despite my contentious relationship with both short stories and literary fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first and so far only novel, telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s grief through the illness and death of his son Willie, age 11.

There’s a huge cast of characters, almost all of them dead. “Bardo” is the Tibetan understanding of purgatory, that transitional state between life on earth and heaven, hell, or whatever comes after. This book has a lot of passages on life and death and grief, like a whole whole lot. Other not-exactly-lighthearted topics include chattel slavery and the carnage of war. (It also has comedic relief, such as the married couple who swear like exceptionally foul-mouthed sailors.)

The audiobook was magnificent, though I almost gave up on it. The 166 (not a typo) character cast is overwhelming. I recommend having the book or e-book near to hand while listening, at least for the first few minutes, so you don’t feel lost. I say this as an avid audiobook listener: it’s hard to get into.

But if you stick with it, the experience is extraordinary. The two narrators with the most lines are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris. Both are brilliant. Other narrators include Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon.

I loved this book and wish all my friends would read it, but I acknowledge not everyone enjoys being slammed into a concrete wall. I can’t pretend it’s an easy book. To say nothing of the weighty themes, the novel is unusual in its style, mixing hundreds of characters with contemporary historical accounts. It takes work to read, and even more work to listen to, if you go the audiobook route—but, for me anyway, it was worth the effort.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

How to be an Antiracist

Ibram X. Kendi

 

After the racial turmoil and social unrest of 2020, I set a goal that half the books I read be about race, racism, or antiracism. I did that for a full year. Of everything I read, the book I most recommend is How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi.

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Dr. Kendi argues that the root of racism is racist policy, not individual hatred or ignorance. This is such a different angle than that we see in workplaces and schools and houses of worship. A workshop on unconscious bias won’t end racism (which I kind of already suspected) and teaching your children not to hate won’t end racism (which is eye-opening for me). Ending racist policies will end racism.

Dr. Kendi mixes history with memoir and devotes significant time to intersections with other identities. If you enjoy audiobooks, he does a fine job as narrator.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

 

Station Eleven is a novel about the world after a plague kills off most of humanity. It came out in 2014 but this seemed like an appropriate time to read it because, uh. No reason.

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I started listening to the audiobook (narrated by Kirsten Potter) expecting a dystopia, but really it’s literary fiction dressed up like science fiction for Halloween. It’s like when parents sneak vegetables into their kid’s mac and cheese. RUDE.

So I was not quite the right audience for this. There was too much navel-gazing for me, too much time spent exploring the unraveling of one couple’s marriage. When I read dystopias, I want widespread societal collapse and heroic sacrifices and roving bands of cannibals. (This is basically a plot summary of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a literary dystopia that happens to be one of my favorite books. 🤷‍♀️)

But this is a matter of personal taste, not criticism of Emily St. John Mandel as a writer. She jumps back and forth between the world as it was before, the few weeks when the plague swept through, and the survivors living their new lives 19 years later. This includes a traveling theater troupe that brings Shakespeare to villages along the shore of Lake Michigan, because even after the apocalypse, there’s more to life than mere survival.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett

 

Last year I enjoyed Raymond Chandler’s book The Big Sleep, which had all the pulpy genre elements I expected: a down-on-his-luck, wise-cracking, lone wolf detective, beautiful femmes fatales, and lots of rugged philosophy about the crumbling state of the world.

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I expected something similar from Dashiell Hammett’s book The Thin Man, and boy was I wrong. Nick Charles and his wife Nora are quite happily married. They banter and laugh and solve crimes for fun. Nora is an heiress, so they don’t need the money. You wouldn’t know it was even hardboiled, if not for all the drinking.

The book is a breezy read (and a fun listen, if you like audiobooks). The assistant to an eccentric scientist turns up dead, and you might be able to guess who murdered her, especially if you’ve seen the movie, but the whodunnit isn’t the main point. The point is to spend time with some zany characters who are living the good life, now that prohibition is over. Recommended, with the warning that there’s some casual racism that did not age well.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Cold Dish

Robin Wall Kimmerer

 

The Cold Dish is the first in a series of mysteries set in fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. When a young man is found shot, there’s a good chance it’s a hunting accident. When a second young man is shot, Sheriff Walt Longmire knows he has a murderer loose.

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There’s a big cast of characters, most notably Longmire, an agreeable fella, creeping up on retirement but not there yet, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear, a local bartender. The banter between the two is the best part of the book, sort of that buddy-cop vibe.

But there’s a lot more here than folksy character sketches. There are action scenes and gruesome violence alternating with scenes of contemplation and inward focus. Craig Johnson gives us shoot-em-up action, but he also gives us deeper material: the racial dynamics between the American Indians and the white people; the repercussions of sexual violence; depression as a chronic disease.

I’m not too much of a mystery reader, because a novel without elves or wizards is a missed opportunity, but I plan to keep going with these.

I enthusiastically recommend the audio. The narrator is George Guidall, who has narrated thousands and thousands of books. I recognized his voice from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World, and Beowulf.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Braiding Sweetgrass

Robin Wall Kimmerer

One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years is Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

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Even though I discuss and describe books professionally, I’m struggling to communicate what this book is about. In my spreadsheet where I track my reading, I settled on two genres, Science and Ethics, so we’ll start there. Kimmerer is an ecologist. She writes about plants, their role in the environment, and their social history. Think Michael Pollan’s THE BOTANY OF DESIRE.

She talks about the ethics of sharing the planet with plants and animal, diving deep into the concept of reciprocity. She draws on her Potawatomi heritage to use fables, myths, prayers, and traditions to understand how humans should participate in their ecological communities.

As a young woman, Kimmerer was torn between studying science and studying poetry. She opted for science, but her writing is gorgeous. Think Annie Dillard’s THE PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Piranesi

Susanna Clarke

Back in 2004, Susanna Clarke made a huge splash with her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Seventeen years later, she delivers a stellar sophomore novel with Piranesi, which unfortunately I can’t describe in detail, because even the tiniest spoiler would send this Jenga tower crashing down. This is a magnificently plotted book and I don’t want to give anything away. All I can safely say is that our point-of-view character is named Piranesi, and he lives in an endless labyrinth by the sea.

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It’s such an atmospheric story. It’s not creepy, exactly, but you can tell at once that something is very off, even if poor innocent Piranesi is unaware of it. He has only one living friend, an elusive figure called The Other, though he lovingly tends the bones of the 13 bodies scattered around the labyrinth.

The book’s unreliable but well-intentioned narrator doles out clues to help you understand what’s going on, but I confess I was halfway done reading the book before I began to understand where Clarke was taking the story. Ultimately it coalesces as a work of science fiction, though it’s also safe to call it literary fiction. Recommended for fans of Claire North’s trippy science fiction/literary fiction novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World
and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

As part of my antiracism reading goals, I listened to the audiobook of Between the World and Me, written and read by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is a Black American journalist who writes about race and white supremacy. The book doesn’t really have a plot, which makes it difficult to summarize. The writing here is meditative. It’s not one of those books where you speed through to see what happens next. You read a bit, chew on it for a while, dip in for another few minutes, duck back out again. In some ways it has the same rhythms and reflections that I associate with spiritual writing, though Coates is an atheist.

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This book is not prescriptive. Coates doesn’t tell you what to do. Instead, he invites you to think. Recommended for anyone interested in social justice and race. It would be especially good as a book group selection.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons

Stephen King

I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s short fiction. Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, starting with “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” This is the basis for The Shawshank Redemption, i.e., the movie that everyone mentions in their dating profile.

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“Sometimes I like going out, sometimes I like staying in lol. My kids come first!!! My favorite movie is the Shawshank Redemption. Any questions just ask, I’m an open book lol.”

It’s about an innocent man who plays a very long game to get out of prison. If you’ve only seen the movie, set aside a couple of hours and read the original. It’s a perfect story.

Next up is my least favorite in the collection, “Apt Pupil.” It’s quite good, but I have had my fill of angry young men and Nazis. There’s enough of both in real life. (Apparently it’s also a movie? I dunno, I never saw it, and no one ever mentions it on OK Cupid).

Then there’s “The Body,” the basis of the movie “Stand by Me,” about four tween boys who hear a rumor about a dead body in the woods. As with all my favorite Stephen King stories, the plot is important, but not as important as the characters.

Different Seasons was published in 1982, back when the world thought of King as a horror writer, rather than a storyteller who occasionally writes horror. “The Breathing Method” is the only straight-up horror story here (though you’d be right to call “Apt Pupil” psychological horror). It’s a break from King’s typical folksy style, where you feel like you’re chatting with a buddy. Instead he takes a more formal tone, like you might expect from M. R. James or Daphne du Maurier. The story is about a paranormal event surrounding the delivery of a child, though there are hints of cosmic horror that give everything an extra layer of depth.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is one of my favorite writers. He takes bizarre topics and finds the humor in them–similar to Mary Roach’s writing in humor and quirkiness, though his topics are a few shades grimmer.

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This time the topic is mental illness, especially psychopathy. The amygdala of a psychopath functions differently. Psychopaths typically lack empathy and impulse control. They can do an extraordinary amount of damage because they’re just not that bothered by consequence, and usually they can lie their way out, anyway. They often come across as charismatic. They can wreak havoc on a small scale (by murdering you) or on a large scale (by murdering economies, countries, and social systems).

In a book full of disturbing people and mental illnesses, one of the most disturbing parts was learning how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) was put together. It’s all a bit slapdash. This does not fill me with confidence on the practice of mental health care.

I recommend Jon to lots of people, including readers who don’t normally go in for nonfiction.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

The Blacktongue Thief

Christopher Buehlman

It’s lonely, being a fan of Christopher Buehlman. Despite strong critical praise, his books remain one of the best-kept secrets in genre fiction, largely because horror novels have a niche audience. With his debut fantasy novel, The Blacktongue Thief, I’m hopeful more people will start to discover his writing.

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The hero of this adventure story is Kinch Na Shannack, a professional thief who is voluntold to accompany a warrior woman on a journey. A great many fantasy novelists will throw in one lady character, give her a sword, and spend the rest of the story focused on men doing man things. Buehlman gives swords to just about all women in his world—a necessity, since 90% of the men died during the goblin wars.

The book is often funny and often dark, usually at the same time. It’s an adventure story, and while many of the trappings are familiar from your D&D game (witches, assassins, goblins, enchanted rings), the plot is fresh, the characters are multifaceted, the world-building is superb, and the wordsmithing is far better than most of what’s out there, in any genre.

Want to read it?  Request a copy

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