How can I summarize 20201 beyond unhinging my mouth open and loosing a terrified, mournful, righteously angry, existentially-fried scream that will Edvard Munch within the birdhouse of my soul for as long as I live? So, yeah, I’ll get right to the part about my reading then.
That said, you and I will have to muscle through one quarantine anecdote2. The start of Massachusetts’s stay at home orders in March coincided with my two-week Spring Break from school. Having already written a novel3 about a virus outbreak in Massachusetts in which there was a shortage of PPE, poor4 federal response, and right-wing, racist virus conspiracies5, I was NOT the least bit mentally prepared to handle the coronavirus reality. I spent those two weeks in a metaphorical fetal position. I couldn’t concentrate on the books I was supposed to be reading for possible blurbs and instead watched Animal Planet and reruns of Mythbusters. I was trying to escape but couldn’t. What brought me back was rereading The Throat by one of my favorite writers, Peter Straub. Hardly a feel-good novel, the third in his Blue Rose cycle of novels, writer Tim Underhill returns to his dreary hometown of Millhaven, Illinois as it appears there’s a new killer mimicking the murders that occurred during his childhood. Beyond the dizzying twists and thrills of the plot, the sentence level prose is a marvel. For the first time in weeks, I was swept along into that trance, that magic inner space where stories live. But!6 The book was not an escape. I did not lose myself7 in its pages. Instead, with the help of Peter’s sublime talents, I found myself.
I don’t read to escape. I read to be me.
I’m glad I have that off my chest. Or maybe I should wear it on my chest, like a I-read-The-Throat-again-and-it-helped-save-me t-shirt.
Anyway. The upshot is, I read a lot of books during the delineated time-period comprised of twelve months8. What follows is not in chronological order, nor is it everything I read. I’m sticking to the highlights.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth was a revelation. A time hopping epic about a cursed girl’s school in the early 1900s and the modern-day crew of Hollywood misfits attempting to adapt a recently published queer feminist history about what had happened at the school. It’s funny and weird and scary and sexy and stingy. And it has footnotes10. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is surely to be on every year’s-best list. Four Native American friends who did something terrible when they were younger now face a terrifying entity bent upon revenge. Stephen expertly explores what justice means and it’s scary as hell and there’s basketball too. Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies by John Langan. A stunning collection of novelettes and novellas that explore monsters and the monstrous. John is one of horror’s deepest and most fearless explorers, continually pushing at what a horror story can be. The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang. I gleefully sank into this layered, multigenerational gothic novel that starts as a quiet character study and finishes with the book exploding in your hands11. A Brooklyn man suffering from mental illness marries a Taiwanese woman and their attempt at settling into the 1950s American Dream life in Northern California is more than disastrous. The book is gorgeous and shocking and I look forward to reading it again. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a family man and local mechanic struggling to compete with the corporate chains. He’s also the best getaway driver east of the Mississippi. Due to financial struggles, he’s compelled to drive one more. Like the best crime/noir, our main character is doomed, and we know he’s doomed, but we still can’t help but pull for him anyway, and we’re led along the path to ruin by Cosby’s style and expert pacing. The Auctioneer by Joan Samson. A small New Hampshire town welcomes a stranger who holds auctions to help raise money for infrastructure the town doesn’t need (ie. more police). The story is told from the point of view of a farming family who loses everything as the charismatic auctioneer takes over the town, forcing folks to do things they know are not right and not in their best interest. That this novel was published in 1976 and not now, during life in Trumplandia, is mind boggling to me. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Mixing personal reflection/memoir and his vision of how to recontextualize and reshape the racial conversation, while also discussing gender, homophobia, class, and capitalism’s gears being greased by racism, the book is unflinching and written from a place of hope and love. Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White is a comprehensive history of writers struggling against (and sometimes for) the dominant political forces of the twentieth century. I marveled at the bravery of so many of the writers who, at the cost of their careers if not their lives, stood against fascism and imperialism. I was also chilled by the parallels to our current political climate.
Books recommended to me
Priya Sharma (Ormeshadow, All the Fabulous Beasts) mailed me a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A fun and surprisingly sinister comedy of manners and a teacher’s cult of personality. Michael Cisco (The Divinity Student, Animal Money) wouldn’t stop yelling at me until I read The House Guest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila, which was a delightfully dizzying collection of ambiguous horror stories and fever dreams. Laird Barron (Black Mountain, Worse Angels) didn’t yell at me, but remained insistent that I read Delicate Prey and Other Stories by Paul Bowles, which featured globe-trotting settings, damaged characters, and two of the most disturbing stories I’ve read in years.
Okay, this is getting too long but more books, books, books12
Punk reads: Do What You Want by Bad Religion and Jim Ruland, a thoroughly entertaining and informative history of one of my favorite punk bands; The Ramones’ Ramones by Nicholas Rombes, from the series of rock album books from 33 1/3, is half history of punk and half ode to the Ramones’ first album.
Oh the Horror!: 2020 was a banner year for horror, er, fiction. Silvia Moreno-Garcia took on race, eugenics, gothic literature, and fungi with her best-selling juggernaut Mexican Gothic; Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide for Hunting Vampires playfully and expertly recreated a time and place that still feels like now; Jeremy Robert Johnson’s The Loop poses a terrifying Michael Crichton-esque13 what-if spliced with the horror of John Carpenter’s The Thing; John Fram’s The Bright Lands mixes a gay man’s return to home, Texas high school football, and ancient terror; Karen Russell’s funny and uniquely disturbing novella Sleep Donation outlines a pandemic of not-sleeping, of more than insomnia–the sufferers don’t sleep at all; Zoje Stage’s Wonderland taps into nightmares and our quarantine anxieties with her family trapped in a rural home; Tananarive Due’s The Good House puts a new twist on an evil from the past revisiting the present mixed with a compelling intergenerational drama. I really enjoyed Jessica Guess’s inversion of the slasher trope with Cirque Berserk; Errick Nunnally blew me away with two dark fantasy/horror hybrids All the Dead Men (hardboiled werewolf fighting a vampire conspiracy and I imagined every vampire looked like Stephen Miller) and Lightning Wears a Red Cape (a gritty superhero novel), and K. P. Kulsi’s debut Fairest Flesh was a wonderful, affecting, and disturbing mash up of fairy tale the horrors committed by Erszébet Báthory.
Crime: Laird Barron continued his series of novels featuring former hitman Isaiah Coleridge and edged closer into his weird, cosmic horror territory with Worse Angels; I don’t read many series, but the other one that I do read is Liz Hand’s Cassy Neary, punk photographer, novels, and her latest The Book of Lamps and Banners does not disappoint. It is unsettling and very now (involving the far right and white supremacy in the UK); okay, it’s not really crime, and I’d argue it at times shades toward horror, but Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives follows a doomed poetry circle of writers through the decades; also, not typically what would be considered a crime novel but Julia Phillips’s mesmerizing novel in stories Disappearing Earth opens with the kidnapping of two sisters on the Kamchatka peninsula.
What Was I Thinking Reading These Too-Timely Books Right Now?14 Albert Camus’s The Plague, um, yeah, it was really good, and he freaked me out with references to plague deniers, but it didn’t help me with Covid life; During election week15 I read Steven Wright’s The Coyotes of Carthage about corporate funding of a local South Carolina campaign that riles up nationalist freedom fever dreams to allow for the pillaging of state owned lands, and yeah, it was great but it left me in a puddle of political anxiety.
Books you can’t read yet!16 Out this month is Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between and is both gritty and dreamlike as it mixes genres, gentrification, LGBTQ themes, social politics, and whales (yes, whales; there’s one on the cover!); in 2021 be on the lookout for Sarah Langan’s horrifying and brilliant dissection of suburbia with Good Neighbors and two short fiction collections–The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg, which is a brilliant armload of crime stories, full of humor and pathos, set in southern California, and Usman T. Malik’s wildly imaginative short story collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan; it brings to mind the best of Ted Chiang, but Usman has a voice all his own.
Um, wow, that’s a long list. And I left off more worthy books, but I should stop now. Here’s hoping for a better year for us all, and for more reading.
1 We know what year it is. Stop taunting us.2 Sorry. I really mean it. 3 Survivor Song, published July 2020. Yeah, there’s a virus and horror and sadness, but there’s hope in it too. I swear.4 as in piss poor, as in the pissingest poor5 I never imagined how mainstream such conspiracies would become.6 This is important enough for a single word ‘but’ sentence.7 You hear that all the time, right? ‘I lost myself while reading that book…’8 I’m using ‘year’ as literal. I’m going to mention books read from November 2019 to November 2020. So there.9 The books I recommended the most.10 So, yeah, I love footnotes, even though I know these are endnotes.11 I wanted to write literally exploding, but that isn’t true. Mostly. 12 with subcategories within the categories13 But with well-crafted characters. Sorry, Michael.14 Also, um, speaking of ‘timely,’ please buy my book Survivor Song. Thanks.15 Or month(s) now as of the writing of this Trump and his slimily soulless seditious sycophants continue their coup attempt.16 A nicer way to put it would’ve been, coming soon to a bookstore near you, I suppose.
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