BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

I’m back!! A lot has happened in my life. A lot has happened in the world. Storytelling in all of its forms is important; paying attention to what is happening is essential. But I *think* I am correct in saying that, if you are becoming paralyzed in the struggle, it’s okay to spend a little time hiding in a book. So often, the word “escapist” is used as a term of derision among readers. While I certainly think books should challenge us, should expand our viewpoint, should exercise our thinking, make us smarter and more thoughtful and more engaged, I also don’t think we should discount the ability of books to transport us, to envelope us completely in a world that isn’t our own. I also don’t think books fit neatly into binary categories of, say, “escapist” and “paradigm-confronting.” I think many books–the best books, probably–do some or all of these things at once.

So, having established that I don’t use “escapist” as a bad word, let me tell you this: I don’t remember the last time I started a book and was compelled to finish it before the day was over. It has been a LONG time. But I escaped into Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, consuming it in one fitful, feverish day, carrying around my little eBook from room to room. I was spending a lazy day at my boyfriend’s place, and he kept laughing at me as I actually gasped, or sat up, or muttered “no, no, no” under my breath during particularly tense scenes, until eventually he had to experience it for himself. He downloaded it that night, and he was finished with it by the next afternoon.

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Bird Box is a horror novel that takes place after an inexplicable catastrophe dominates, and destroys, our world. Early reports come in of people suddenly struck with a violent frenzy, killing themselves and sometimes others. It spreads quickly, and what early skeptics dismiss as a hoax quickly becomes looming, terrifying reality. The unifying link, first whispered in rumors before becoming incredulous news reports, is that everyone who acts out does so after they’ve seen…something. No one knows what it is, because once you learn, of course, the secret dies with you, but as the death toll rises, one idea takes hold until it has become the new reality: there are creatures, outside. Creatures that are growing in number. Creatures that don’t seem to hurt you unless you look at them. For the story’s protagonist Mallory, trying to protect her two children, this means years in a boarded-up house. Years of walking blindfolded to the well for water, teaching her children how to hear well enough to move through the world without sight, training them to awaken without opening their eyes. But now, Mallory knows the time has come to try to give them more than this. She and her children must make a journey out into the wilderness, amidst the creatures. Mallory has no idea what they’ll encounter out there; she can only hope that they can fight, resist, and survive what they can’t see.

My favorite horror movies have always been ones based not in gore and shock, but in deep, unsettling suspense. I am pleased when I don’t see the monster for a long time, when I have to fill in the blanks with my own mounting horror. This book has taken that concept to its most logical extreme, and I completely loved it. In this aim, Malerman has created a novel that strikes me almost as an extension of the American gothic tradition. The horror of gothic novels is rooted in the unknown. In Europe, this came in the form of the crumbling ruins and dark passages of castles long abandoned, mysterious to those that encountered their remains. In America, there were no abandoned castles: the unknown waited in the woods. Today, as the wilderness rapidly shrinks and it seems impossible to imagine a stretch of land too large that doesn’t contain a gas station, the “unknown” is shrinking along with it. In this novel, Malerman has returned it to us, robbing us of the certainty of surveillance: the idea that nothing is out of reach of our cell phone cameras, that nothing bad could happen under our watch…a certainty that, it would seem, could use some destabilizing.

Above all, though, Bird Box is a great, frightening story, with a strong protagonist in Mallory. The theme and tone of this book actually remind me of the film The Babadook, particularly in the ways that the emotional horror of the events are given as much weight as the literal horror (not that there isn’t plenty of that, in both stories). Mallory is a bit like the mother character in that film, as well, struggling through her own horror in the aim of protecting her childhood, wondering whether her motherhood can shield them all or has actually become its own monstrous presence in their lives. She is fiercely compelling, and you want her to make it to the end, no matter how impossible it seems.

This book terrified me, enraptured me, enthralled me. I haven’t read that many horror novels, but somehow, it was exactly the kind of story I needed to be pulled into. As I was sitting straight up and gasping, I was outside of myself. The book left me plenty to ponder afterwards, but in the moment, I was experiencing something more visceral. Something heart-pounding. And I think I needed that, too.

Stay brave out there, friends. And ignore the tagline; keep your eyes open.

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STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven has perhaps the most appealing elevator pitch I’ve ever heard: a traveling symphony and theater troupe performs Shakespeare in a post-apocalyptic world. How can you not want to read that book immediately? When I heard that there was a comic book integral to the plot, it felt as though this novel had been written just for me. I expected a genre-bending, innovative work of fiction, a fresh take (thank goodness!) on the end of the world. Emily St. John Mandel has accomplished all of this, but she has also crafted an incredibly touching ode to our own time. Station Eleven is a terrifying, beautiful book, one that I’m guessing will stay with me for a long time.

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Station Eleven follows a traveling symphony as it makes its rounds through makeshift communities in a new world, one still rebuilding after a terrible pandemic. Twenty years earlier, 99% of the world’s population was wiped out by the Georgia Flu, a fever that spread rapidly and killed those infected hours upon contracting. The novel explores the perspectives of many characters, as well as their lives before, during, and long after the nightmare of the disease’s spread. Part of the joy of the novel is learning how these characters are connected, so I don’t want to give too much away. If the novel can be said to have one main character, it would be Kirsten, an actress in the theater troupe who was a young girl when the pandemic started. She has scant memories of the world before the fever, and so she is fascinated by anything she can learn about that the way things used to be. She is also obsessed with two comic books given to her when she was very young: beautifully drawn science fiction stories about a colony fleeing a doomed Earth aboard a planet-sized ship called Station Eleven. As the symphony travels their usual route, it becomes clear that some of the towns they’ve visited have changed. A new cult has taken power, one with a leader that Kirsten feels a strange connection to, and as the symphony continues in their travels, it becomes clear that they are in more danger than ever before.

The power of Station Eleven lies in its incredible details. Of all the post-apocalyptic worlds I’ve read, this one is the most believable, and as such, the most haunting. St. John Mandel’s rendering of the world in disaster, and the surviving world that emerges, feel so spot-on. Some of it is scary, but some of it demonstrates the resilience of humanity, and the ability for groups of people to come together. One of my favorite scenes took place in a quarantined airport in the first days of the pandemic. The remaining people needed to break into the airport restaurant for food, but enough traces of civilization kept them from wanting to steal, and they hesitated until one man proudly held up his credit card, set it on the counter, and promised to charge all the food to it. It’s a sweet, funny moment that rings so true.

The book, despite being downright terrifying at times, is a really sweet tribute to the good in humanity. This should be expected from a novel about Shakespeare being performed after the world ends. Kirsten reflects on this in one of the most beautiful passages of the book, one that almost reads more like a poem:

“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining half a mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheek-bone half-erased by candlelight […] Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theater again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king.”

St. John Mandel imagines a ravaged world that still has hope, art, beauty, community. While at times it seems eerily prescient, Station Eleven ultimately filled me with a renewed belief in the best of us, the parts that can hopefully survive any disaster.

THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne M. Valente

I’ve been talking this book up to coworkers and friends since I was about halfway through with it, but I’ve found the process to be a bit superfluous. Despite the long list of specific praises I’ve had at the ready, the right sort of person (which, fortunately, is the sort of person I’m surrounded by daily) has been sold on the book as soon as I’ve said the title. And really, the title does a lot of this work for me. If you find it clever and cute, you will be as completely enchanted by this book as I was.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is Catherynne M. Valente’s first children’s book, and it’s easily become one of my all-time favorites. The story follows the adventures of a young girl named September who has tired of her life in Omaha. With her father off fighting in World War II and her mother at work in the factories, September decides she won’t be missed and accepts the Green Wind’s invitation to take her to Fairyland. Once there, September meets a variety of strange and sweet characters, all of which seem to have suffered a loss. Fairyland is darker than September expected, and as time goes on, it becomes clear that September might need to become the sort of hero she’s read about in stories, even as she becomes less and less sure that she’s the right girl for the job.

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I loved this book for so many reasons. The characters are lively and wholly endearing. The world Valente creates is imaginative but so well-realized, somehow managing to feel both completely fantastical and lived-in all at once. The tone is humorous and self-aware, similar to a Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman story, but Valente’s voice is so unique that I don’t want to downplay her with comparisons. Valente writes not only with humor and fantasy, but also with enormous intelligence. This book doesn’t talk down to its audience at all, which is my favorite quality in a children’s book. Not only does the book have a sophisticated vocabulary, but the language itself is so poetic that it merges with the narrative to create storytelling that’s different than anything I’ve experienced before. The story itself is poetic. It’s hard to even extract a passage as example; the best I can give is when September finds herself in a magical bathhouse, being taken care of by a soap golem named Lye:

“September’s head ducked immediately under the thick, bright gold water. When she bobbed up, the smell of it wrapped her up like a warm scarf: the scent of fireplaces crackling and warm cinnamon and autumn leaves crunching underfoot. She smelled cider and a rainstorm coming. The gold water clung to her in streaks and clumps, and she laughed. It tasted like butterscotch.

‘This is the tub for washing your courage,’ Lye said, her voice as even and calm as ever […]

‘I didn’t know one’s courage needed washing!’ gasped September as Lye poured a pitcher of water over her head.”

The language wasn’t the only part of this book that was sophisticated. This isn’t an easy story of good and evil, knights and princesses. The characters in this story, and the world they live in, are textured and flawed and genuine. There is deep darkness and deep love, and often, the two are intrinsically connected. This book dazzled me with its brain and its heart, and I’m really looking forward to diving back into this world. (Thank goodness it’s a series!) If a whimsical narrator, lovable characters, and a story filled with surprisingly dark turns and unflappable hope appeal to you, I think you will love this book–but again, you’ve probably known that you would from the moment you read the title.

NOTES FROM NO MAN’S LAND by Eula Biss

This week’s review is another collection of essays (published once again by Graywolf Press, no less!), but what can I say? My wheelhouse is my wheelhouse. I do worry about becoming redundant, though, so before I begin to accidentally tread familiar territory, espousing things like “the expert blending of memoir, criticism, and journalism” and “the examination of the personal to reach a conclusion that’s universal,” let me tell you a truth about this book. It made me uncomfortable. It made me deeply uncomfortable. And this discomfort is so crucial, so necessary, that I want to make sure it’s not overlooked. Why did it make me so uncomfortable? To put it bluntly and succinctly, this is a book about being white in America.

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In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss excavates the framework of race that underlies nearly every part of American life, from where we live (and why we can afford to live there), to how we experience school, to our response to natural disasters, even to the toys we cherish. The book is organized by Biss’s experiences living and working in different parts of the country, and the large, challenging concepts are belayed by her personal experiences, and her frankness in exploring them. Biss is not easy on herself, and this enables the reader the same sort of unflinching self-examination. In her essay “All Apologies,” for example, Biss explores some examples of official “apologies” that have been issued by our government, juxtaposing them to her own apologies as a way to explore the tension between remorse and the more selfish desire to be absolved. She writes of the time she punched her younger sister in the stomach, saying, “It was an experiment. And I was sorry the instant my fist hit her. Sorry before I even saw her face, covered in shock, a horrible purple. […] ‘I’m sorry,’ I gasped. ‘I’m sorry.’ But I already felt something else. I grabbed her arm desperately. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘don’t tell.'”

If the description of this book as being “about whiteness” seems strange, it’s not by accident. The white perspective has been the default in our national conversation for so long that it’s unusual to see it articulated, and that’s precisely why this book is so important. Biss is in a unique position to write about this topic. She herself is white, but she is directly related to people who are not, and as such, she seems to have grown up constantly aware of whiteness as an identity, rather than as a lack of one. She recalls her experiences as they oscillate between extremes of wanting to reject white identity but, at the same time, reaping its benefits. The rejection of whiteness itself contains paradoxes, as well; Biss seems to want to distance herself from her white identity as a judgment of the system that has elevated her from others, but she also seems aware that doing so might be to deny one’s own complicity in this system. At times there is a palpable tension in the works as Biss examines the ways race has scarred this country and yet, by doing so, implicates herself. This tension is smart, as it keeps Biss from treading into a sort of White Savior complex. Instead, she is informative and honest, and the lessons she derives from her experiences are jumping-off points into a much broader conversation, one that appears in daily life again and again. This book needled under my skin and lives there now, prickling every time I turn on the news, or go out to eat, or look for apartments…

There is so much to unpack here, and these essays provide no easy answers. The act of examination that this book creates seems to be an important start, but the book leaves you with the staggering work left to be done from there, work that is so immediately pressing. It feels like a call to action, one that it as necessary today as it has ever been.

 

AFFINITY by Sarah Waters

Halloween may be over, but the cold weather still inspires plenty of clichés about cozy-ing up and reading a spooky story. One of our most beloved Christmas stories (Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) is a ghost story, after all. Plus, I was a little late on finishing up my Halloween reading. So, justifications duly stammered, let’s talk about Affinity by Sarah Waters.

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Sarah Waters is an author I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Her reputation as someone who takes tried-and-true Victorian settings and themes and centers them around same-sex female relationships was immediately appealing. She is probably most famous for Tipping the Velvet, a historical novel set in a Victorian circus. I can see how that phrase sounds delicious, but I’ll admit, the circus motif has never really done much for me. A creepy story about a spiritualist, set in a creepy prison, sounded more in my wheelhouse.

This story is told from the perspective of Margaret Prior, set up as the pages of her own diary. After her father’s death, her mental health took a steep and frightening dip, and as part of her recovery, she wants to focus her attention elsewhere. She decides to become a visitor for the women’s prison Millbank, where it will be her duty to talk with the inmates housed there, coaxing them into rehabilitation. She becomes interested in the prisoner Selina Dawes, a medium who seems to be capable of strange things. The reader also gets fleeting glimpses into Selina’s old journal entries, all from before the incident that sent her to Millbank. Margaret becomes determined to learn more about Selina, and as she does, she finds her interest turning into attraction. Selina becomes interested in Margaret as well, and seems to know her deepest, most intimate secrets, making Margaret wonder if the spirits Selina claims to commune with could be real.

The characters in this story were the most compelling aspect. Margaret is a wonderful narrator, and her relationship to her brother’s wife (her own ex-lover) is heartbreaking. I try not to get too attached to characters in fiction (very few stories are written about a good day), but I couldn’t help but root for Margaret throughout. This factor made the ending of the story a bit sour for me. I won’t spoil it here, but I really wanted more for this character. At the same time, as a reader, I experienced the epiphanies and heartbreak right in step with her, making it a well-crafted ending. In my selfish heart, though, I wanted the dull, uninteresting, happy ending, just this once.

The setting of this book is also engaging. I love reading about historical periods that I haven’t learned much about, and other than the Civil War, I have to admit that the 1800s is a bit of a hazy, swirling mass to me (it seemed that all my history classes either didn’t quite make it past the Revolutionary War or started with the Great Depression). I enjoyed this setting, particularly the focus on spiritualism. It was really interesting reading this book after having read Mary Roach’s Spook and learning about the tricks of the trade. This book handles this subject well, as skeptics and believers alike can be carried through the plot; the text leaves the more supernatural elements a little up to interpretation, which adds to the overall mystery.

All in all, this was an enjoyable novel, one that felt classic and contemporary at the same time. I have a feeling that it won’t end up being my favorite Sarah Waters novel, but it did leave me wanting to read more of her oeuvre to find out.

WINNIE-THE-POOH by A.A. Milne

I’m sorry for my absence in the last couple of weeks; I’ve missed writing about books for you all! It’s been a time of a lot of change for me, and I’m looking forward to the future. But change is always a little hard. I’ve been craving things of comfort: mashed potato dinners, cozy sweaters, adorable childhood favorites.

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Surprisingly, I had never read the original A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh stories. I, like many children, was introduced to these characters by Walt Disney. I was surprised by how similar the stories I knew from those films were to the original text. Some of the lines and plots were exactly the same, and of course, both versions are so charming. I think the biggest difference between Milne’s original stories and Disney’s versions is the sense of intimacy. The stories in the book feel much more familial, a world created by a father for his child. Often, the narrator of the stories steps out of the plot to speak directly to his listener, the child Christopher Robin. This element added so much sweetness to the stories, and made their structure and narrative unique. The text plays around a lot with the concept of storytelling, which is something I really liked about it.

There are a lot of clever jokes throughout the stories. My personal favorite is the fact that Piglet lives in a home with a partially damaged sign that reads “Trespassers Will.” The real-world understanding of this sign would be that it was the beginning of a threat of violence, but instead, Piglet understands it to mean that the grandfather who passed down his home to him was named Trespassers William. If you’re like me and enjoy over-analyzing everything, you could read this as more than cute wordplay, but as an intentional subversion of something unpleasant and unfriendly for something sweet and familial. It’s a good trade.

Of course, the best parts of the stories are the characters. Pooh and his friends are kind and funny. They are also (for stuffed animals) so human. They like to be recognized and admired for good deeds; they like attention. They pretend to understand more than they do at times. They’re not always the best to one another, but at the end of the day, friendship always seems to prevail. My favorite of the stories was titled “In Which Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents.” Pooh and Piglet learn that Eeyore is feeling alone and neglected on his birthday, and each decide to bring him the perfect present. They both mess up the gifts and feel terribly about ruining Eeyore’s birthday. I won’t spoil the details, but I’m sure you can imagine it doesn’t end in hurt feelings. It’s so sweet and perfect.

This book was exactly what I needed. It’s comforting and warm without being too frivolous and silly. It manages to be smart while retaining a child’s sense of wonderment and joy. It’s a classic for a reason, and if you’ve never given the original stories a try, it’s definitely worth it.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson

Most readers remember Shirley Jackson from her short story “The Lottery,” one of the most famous American short stories and one that stayed with me long past the school reading assignment. It has taken me an absurdly long time to dive into her novels, but now that I have, I’m completely hooked. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle this summer and completely adored it, but it was her quintessential haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House that seemed the perfect fit for this season. In this blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned, things-go-bump-in-the-night scares, Jackson proves herself to be a crucial influence in the modern horror landscape.

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Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is a classic haunted house story. It begins with Dr. Montegue, a scientist studying paranormal activity. He is particularly interested in Hill House, which has garnered itself a reputation as a place where no one can stay for long, and invites three guests to stay with him for the summer and take notes on their experiences: Luke, the young man who will one day inherit Hill House; Theodora, a young woman with an apparent telepathic talent; and Eleanor, who is eager to begin a new life after having spent years caring for her dying mother. The story is told through Eleanor’s point of view, and as strange and terrifying things begin to happen in the house, they seem particularly targeted towards her. As Eleanor struggles to understand this, her guilt and insecurity begin to eat away at her, which only seems to feed the evil of the house more and more.

Jackson is a master at harnessing the reader’s imagination to create deeply unsettling scenes. So much of the horror of this book is psychological, having to do with the way Eleanor reacts to Hill House. At the same time, plenty of really creepy things seem to happen, too. Like most of my favorite horror stories, the real power lies in what the reader doesn’t see. Most of the physical terror of the story happens literally on the other side of a closed door, allowing the reader to imagine the worst.

As much as I love all of this creepy stuff, my favorite part about Jackson’s novels are the female relationships she creates, which are complicated and passionate and fraught and so honest, and a complete joy to read. When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, Theodora is the first one to follow, and the two bond almost instantly. They explore the grounds, laughing and joking about the terrors they might encounter, but for Eleanor, there is an undercurrent of fear in her joking that she worries Theodora doesn’t share. Then: “Unexpectedly–although it was later to become a familiar note, a recognizable attribute of what was to mean ‘Theodora’ in Eleanor’s mind–Theodora caught at Eleanor’s thought, and answered her. ‘Don’t be so afraid all the time,’ she said and reached out to touch Eleanor’s cheek with one finger. ‘We never know where our courage is coming from.'”

The relationship between Eleanor and Theodora could be read as an intimate friendship, born of the strange circumstances, but it seems to me impossible to not read romance in it, as well (and coincidentally, an article just published today on Book Riot agrees with me). As the house eats away at Eleanor, her emotions and temperament rise and fall, and without fail, her most passionate feelings, both hatred and longing, are directed towards Theodora. As captivating as the thrills and terror of the story are, it was this relationship that kept me turning the pages above all else. It is compelling and beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking. (Also, a completely delightful surprise in the midst of my haunted house book.)

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite book of the season thus far. It was both terrifying and emotionally enthralling. The writing is beautiful, the characters are lively and interesting, and the setting does not at all disappoint. Jackson has definitely become one of my favorite writers, and I could see myself enjoying this book every year when the weather begins to get a little bit colder, and the wind picks up and makes the house shudder and creak.