literary fiction · review

Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin

Trigger warnings for drug abuse and incest.

Mona has a strange life. Not only does she have a gift for finding odd people, she also has a past that makes it hard for her to even see why she should try for some unknown “better.” When people ask her what she does for a living, she notices that they never like the blunt answer. Mona is a cleaning lady. She’s not cleaning houses while also putting herself through college or working on her art. She sees nothing wrong with being “just” a house cleaner. In Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin, we start to see what makes Mona tick and all of the things that have happened to her (and her clients and friends) to take them off the expected path.

We meet Mona while she is still in Massachusetts. She’s been cleaning houses with her cousin for some time, while also working at a needle exchange in Lowell. But things are about to change for Mona. First, her cousin sells her cleaning business to a woman who eventually fires Mona. Second, and more devastating for Mona, the boyfriend she met at the needle exchange loses his sobriety and commits suicide. With nothing left to hold her in Massachusetts, Mona follows her boyfriend’s advice to go to New Mexico.

In New Mexico, Mona meets a series of people who (for once, it seems) want to help her. But where her cousin encouraged Mona to go to therapy and take prescription medication, Mona’s new acquaintances recommend everything from macrobiotic diets to psychic-guided meditation. Between the advice and reaching out to her alcoholic (and, we discover, monstrous) father, Mona starts to recover memories of terrible things she suppressed from years ago that have been subconsciously and physically haunting her ever since.

Put like this, Pretend I’m Dead sounds very grim and not very appealing. A plain plot summary doesn’t capture how funny and quirky this book can be. It definitely doesn’t capture the amazingly drawn characters. Not only is Mona brilliantly realized, I loved how Beagin was able to create characters like Betty the Psychic or “Yoko and Yoko,” Mona’s cult-of-two neighbors. The characters in Pretend I’m Dead are people one might brush past on our way to somewhere else. But because Mona doesn’t fit into mainstream life, her world is full of people who also either reject or fall out of the mainstream. It might be harder for them to make money and they mostly don’t have health insurance, they have all found the freedom for complete self-expression. As I watched these characters rally around Mona (without her asking), I started to realize that the mainstream doesn’t have what Mona needs to find peace.

The only issue I had with Pretend I’m Dead is that it ends on a not-quite-cliffhanger. I haven’t read the sequel, but I’ve bought a copy so that I can find out what happens to Mona next. Other readers may want to have the second book, Vacuum in the Dark, on deck for when they finish Pretend I’m Dead.

historical fiction · review

Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker

There are plenty of stories about the American west in which white settlers go a little crazy—plenty of nonfiction stories, too. But I think that Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker, is the first time I’ve met a manic pixie dream girl in the barely colonized American west. This novel centers on two sisters, Elise and Lorena, who are temperamentally opposites but who complete each other. Lorena is the practical older sister with a penchant for correcting other’s grammar. Elise is….a very odd girl who never thinks about the consequences of her whimsy. Her actions lead to a terrible loss and a long estrangement. I have to say, I was not nearly as charmed by Elise as many of the characters in this novel are; I am firmly on Team Lorena.

We meet Elise and Lorena as they are making their way to school on a frozen Oklahoma morning. It’s so cold that their mother pins them into a blanket so that they can ride in some comfort. They have to be unpinned at the other end by the teacher, Mr. Gus McQueen. Their first conversation in the book tells you everything you need to know about these two teenagers. Elise speaks in quotes from their local newspaper, focusing on the odd and mildly amusing. Lorena makes the occasional comment and correction. She indulges her sisters interests, but does at least the minimum to keep her sister grounded in reality. Their mother is still a bit lost in her grief for their two brothers, who died of “prairie fever” years before. Their father is only interested in the next get rich scheme. The sisters only have each other to keep each other safe—which basically means it’s up to Lorena to keep her sister safe.

Elise does something incredibly stupid near the beginning of the book. Her “accident” leads to frostbite for herself and the mercy killing of their faithful horse who was injured in the storm that took Elise’s toes and ring finger. I was willing to go along with Elise’s whimsy somewhat (even though I found it annoyingly twee), but I found that I could never forgive her for causing the death of her horse. Throughout the rest of the book, I saw Elise just compounding her error by refusing to take responsibility for any of her actions. I was more willing to forgive Elise for “stealing” Mr. McQueen from Lorena than I was for riding off on a horse in the middle of a blizzard. Love happens by genuine accident all the time. Doing something anyone with sense would consider nigh suicidal and then never acknowledging one’s culpability is another matter entirely.

What redeemed Prairie Fever for me was the loving descriptions of the harsh landscape. Being a westerner myself, I could empathize with all of the characters’ admiration for the sunsets, the big skies, and the way that life can grow in a place with extreme weather. I also softened on the book as Elise started to lose some of what I thought of as affectations and grow up a bit and as Lorena’s life followed a trajectory that ended up punishing her more than it did her family and Elise. That said, I’m not sure I can recommend this book to other readers unless they have a high tolerance for tweeness. Some readers love a manic pixie dream girl. I just find them exhausting.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

historical fiction · review

The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen

The question of what it means to be good is one that we can never answer, no matter what the philosophers and theologians might say. This is the epiphany I had about three quarters of the way through Thomas Mullen’s devastating novel, The Last Town on Earth. The novel opens on an ethical dilemma, played out in the real (well, fictional version of the real) world. A man and a teenager are guarding a road. Behind them is the town of Commonwealth, Washington, which has so far been spared the 1918 Spanish Flu. They’ve placed themselves under quarantine to try to ride out the pandemic. Unfortunately for the man and the teen, another man in soldier’s clothes has just begged them for food and shelter so that he doesn’t die of exposure. What would be the right thing to do? Save the one man and risk the many? Or shoot the man when he refuses to go away to save the town’s inhabitants?

There are many kinds of good (or “good”) people in The Last Town on Earth. There are characters—like the teenager, Philip, who we meet at the beginning of the novel—who constantly worry if they’re doing the right thing. Philip agonizes over his part in the disaster that opens the novel and its fall out. His adopted father, Charles Worthy, who owns the mill that fuels the town, increasingly wonders if the quarantine was the right thing to do or if it would’ve been better to leave Commonwealth open. And the town doctor, Dr. Banes, tries to wring every bit of knowledge out of letters from a colleague and his old medical books about influenza to try and help Charles make the right decisions about averting the flu. On the other hand, there are characters like Graham—the man we meet along with Philip at the beginning of The Last Town on Earth—and several of the leading men in the neighboring town of Timber Falls, who never doubt that they are doing the right thing. They are more frightening than the Spanish Flu because they continue on wrecking things in the name of “doing the right thing.”

The Last Town on Earth begins a few weeks into Commonwealth’s quarantine, on the last day that things are relatively okay in the town. But after the stranger appears on the road to Commonwealth, everything goes rapidly to hell. Another stranger pops up on the road and refuses to go away. There’s a posse of upright citizens from Timber Falls who are sure that those Commonwealth folk are up to something anti-American and communistic because Charles insists on paying a living wage to his mill workers. When the flu inevitably breaks out anyway, because there is always someone in an attempted utopia who breaks the rules and messes things up. Philip et al. have enough on their plate even without their moral crises, though it seems as if all three of the main characters—Philip, Graham, and Charles—spend a lot of energy either worrying if they did the right thing or trying to rationalize their actions. It sounds a little wearying, but it’s not at all. Mullen’s characters are so human and fully developed that I could empathize with almost everyone.

Health poster, c. 1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

While the narrative mostly focuses on Philip and Graham and, to a lesser extent, Charles, there are several chapters narrated by tertiary characters or that consist solely of dialogue from the townspeople as rumors start to get out of control in the town. In an author’s note, Mullen discusses the multiple panics that descended on the United States at the end of World War I that inspired this novel. (Mullen has a deft hand with his research. The history in this book is very well done. I didn’t have any lingering questions or urges to dive into Wikipedia. I also never felt like I was in a seminar.) There’s the fear of the flu, obviously, but also fear of communism (the First Red Scare), the fear of German spies, fear of the draft, and fear of strikebreakers (there are multiple references to the Everett Massacre of 1917). Commonwealth and Timber Falls are a microcosm of all of these fears. The rumors and the characters’ actions get more frantic as these many fears grow stronger.

I wasn’t sure about The Last Town on Earth at first. I worried that it would be a series of ethical dilemmas without any psychological underpinning to make me really care about the consequences of the characters’ decisions. I’m glad I stuck with this book, however. With each chapter, the world of Commonwealth became increasingly real to me. I fretted as much as the characters did as they deliberated between all the bad options in front of them. Normally, when I read historical fiction, I wonder what I would have done if I was in that time and place. That didn’t happen with The Last Town on Earth. There are no clear answers to the questions presented in this book and that is, perhaps, the best thing in this terrific book.

nonfiction · review

The Taste of Empire, by Lizzie Collingham

It’s not unusual for me to have mixed emotions while reading a book. Some books have made me feel happy and sad, others wary and mirthful. But I can’t recall a book that made me feel outraged and hungry. That is what I felt most of the time as I read Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Each chapter of this book begins with a meal set in a variety of places in England or their former colonies, each illustrating how exotic ingredients became British staples or how culture was shaped by the trading empire, before zoomed out to the larger economic movements and consequences of those movements. I would have loved to have tea or try curried iguana with the people mentioned in the book, but then I would grow more and more angry as I read about how the rapacious and racist actions of British colonizers wrecked havoc on traditional foodways and culture.

Collingham takes us back to the Tudor era at the beginning of Taste of Empire, when the English began to branch out to find fish to feed their navy. She takes us aboard the Mary Rose, a ship that sunk early in a battle due to a freak of weather. The artifacts found on the wreck have given us an in-depth look at so much about Tudor life, but Collingham obviously focuses on the food. The sailors ate hardtack, salt fish, and peas, mostly. They were probably not happy about it. (Dissatisfaction with military rations is a running theme.) The last meal of the Mary Rose sailors becomes a springboard to a discussion of how early English fishermen stopped sailing to shoals off Iceland and moved to the shoals off of Newfoundland—with plenty of details of how cod were preserved in massive amounts of salt so that they would be edible when they arrived back in England. In subsequent chapters, Collingham teaches us about the origins of the triangle trade and the incredible growth of Caribbean sugar, the British and American slave trade, the theft of land from indigenous people, how the British East India Company traded opium for Chinese tea, the development of a variety of food preservation techniques, the British racist obsession with “civilizing” indigenous people, and much more.

A large part of The Taste of Empire examines how cash crop agriculture repeatedly leads to cultural destruction and malnutrition. In the American colonies, it was tobacco. In the Caribbean, it was sugar. In India, it was opium. These crops were so valuable that farmers around the Empire’s colonies stopped growing food because they could make more money with the cash crops. Because these farmers weren’t growing food, they grew dependent on British food imports from Canada, Australia, and other places. If that trade were ever interrupted or prices inflated, famine could break out–as it did repeatedly in India. Collingham includes a deliberately upsetting image of victims of the 1876-1878 Madras Famine to show us the very real consequences of British trade. During the Great Famine in Ireland and the Bengal Famine of 1943, food was exported to England at the cost of exacerbating local hunger. In addition to deliberately encouraging cash crop agriculture, British colonizers also pushed people in their African and Indian colonies to grow corn (maize) instead of their traditional millet, sorghum, and other grains. While they told local that corn was more useful and civilized, they didn’t know to pass on cooking methods that would actually make corn nutritious. Without extra processing, critical vitamins in corn couldn’t be absorbed by the human body. Consequently, people grew tons of corn and became malnourished as they ate it.

A 106-year old fruitcake made by Huntley & Palmers, found in Antarctic ruins. (Image via NPR)

I have a few problems with The Taste of Empire. Collingham deliberately uses colonial terms for places in India and Africa without parenthetical notes with the modern names. I realize that Collingham is trying to recreate the colonial world, but it bothered me that the indigenous names are erased. Reading about the famines in Bengal might have been a little more bearable if those names had been there to remind me that India would become independent after World War II. The other thing that bothered me is that, because she wanted to cover so much territory (temporal and physical), a lot of things are oversimplified or omitted. In her brief discussion of the Irish Great Famine, Collingham doesn’t mention that English colonizers still exported grain and livestock to England while the Irish were left with their rotting potatoes to eat. She repeats the idea that local Irish “over relied” on potatoes without reminding us that this over reliance came from the fact that there was nothing else for them to eat. Also, in trying to be fair to British colonizers, there are several sections (especially the chapter that discusses the opium-tea trade) in The Taste of Empire where I wish Collingham had been more judgmental of the British. Collingham criticizes but not as much as I would have wished, but I suspect this was because I was furious at what I was reading.

In spite of its problems, I was fascinated throughout The Taste of Empire. About a third of the actual length of the book consists of notes and references and I deeply approve of the amount of research Collingham did for this book. I loved the scenes of meals around the world, event when they were included to show just how stubborn British colonizers were in recreating good English meals wherever they were. She even includes recipes for some of the dishes mentioned. Every chapter was eye opening and, unlike some nonfiction books I could mention with hyperbolic subtitles, Collingham absolutely proves her thesis that the British drive for food (and cash crops) definitely helped create the world we live in now.

horror · literary fiction · review

The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle

Pepper may have the worst luck of any man I’ve seen in fiction. Pepper, in what he believes to be an act of chivalry, goes to warn off the ex of a woman he’s interested in. When some cops happen to show up and Pepper starts fighting them, they take him to a place where they can dump him so that he’ll be off the streets but where they don’t have to do the paperwork: New Hyde Hospital. Before the end of the first chapter of The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle, Pepper finds himself locked up in a cell with an obsessive roommate and dosed to the gills with psychotropic medication. On top of all this, something terrible and inhumane is stalking the hospital and killing patients.

In 1973, a psychologist and a bunch of psychology students conducted an experiment. They would claim to have hallucinations until they were committed to a mental hospital. Once they had been committed, they would drop their acts and see how long it took for the staff to notice that there were sane people in their hospital. To quote Wikipedia, “All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and had to agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The average time that the patients spent in the hospital was 19 days. All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia ‘in remission’ before their release.” The Devil in Silver brought back all the shock I felt when I heard about the Rosenhan Experiment or Nellie Bly’s experiment at the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Pepper is not mentally ill but, because he has been involuntarily committed at a mental hospital, he is treated by all the staff as if he is. Even if his life (and the lives of the other patients) weren’t in immediate danger by the creature in the walls, he is in very real danger of losing his mind in the terrible, abusive, drugged confines of New Hyde.

The Devil in Silver is a meandering novel, especially for a horror novel. In fact, more of this book is literary fiction than horror. I have to classify it as horror because of the aforementioned creature in the walls. In between attacks by the creature and tense moments trying to track down said creature, The Devil in Silver discusses the collapse of Americans mental health system, run by a cruel Kafka-esque bureaucracies driven by milking profit out of the system; the injustice of the immigration system; dehumanization; fundamental breakdowns of communication when people fail to listen to each other; and more. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently referenced and Jaws and Dead Souls make appearances. Not only will this book terrify you with its monster, it can freak you on on an existential level.

I liked a lot of The Devil in Silver, but there is one major loose end that is not tied up at the end that annoyed me enough to keep me from wholeheartedly loving this book. Personally, even though the ending let me down, I would love to read this book with a group because I want to talk about the deeper themes of the book. While this book could have been set any time in the last fifty years (or more, to be honest), the injustices Pepper faces are still very much with us. I don’t know if anyone has found the right way to care for people with severe mental illnesses who are a danger to others and themselves. Readers who like a hefty dose of terror with their food for thought will enjoy this book. Readers who like thoughtful horror novels will have a good time, too, but will probably be as irritated as I was that we never really find out how the creature in the walls came to be.

literary fiction · review

Rabbits for Food, by Binnie Kirschenbaum

As I read Binnie Kirschenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, I thought of a post a while ago about my enjoyment of books with protagonists who may or may not be suffering from a mental illness. It all depended on one’s perspective. It turns out the books where both of those states are true is heartbreaking. Having a mental illness while everyone consistently fails to take one seriously just compounds one’s problems. Even though this book made my heart ache for its protagonist, I also found it hugely moving. It is the best, most effective thing I’ve ever read about depression or hyper-sensitivity.

Bunny has never fit in. Worse, she didn’t know she didn’t fit in until she was about ten and one of her sisters told her that no one in the family liked her. It’s not her fault. She doesn’t mean to sound like a jerk. She just doesn’t have a filter between her brain and her mouth. She also doesn’t have a filter between her feelings at the rest of the world. While she is perfectly capable of wounding people with her words, she is a confirmed vegetarian because she can’t bear the thought of hurting an animal. No one understands Bunny. Whenever she opens her mouth, her friends and family either think it’s a joke, or that she’s being an asshole, or they just ignore her. The only person who truly understood Bunny died because of a stupid, utterly banal accident. Her meds aren’t working anymore. Thoughts about the environment and her isolation from everyone—including her own long-suffering husband, Albie, who tries very hard to keep her going—have plunged her into a depression so deep that she has herself committed. Not only does she have herself committed, Bunny has also signed up for one of the most extreme treatments for depression ever devised: electroconvulsive therapy.

The other thought that occurred to me as I read Rabbits for Food was that I finally understand Holden Caulfield now. One of the central events in this novel is a New Year’s Eve dinner that Albie tries to talk Bunny out of attending. Bunny makes an effort. She showers. She puts on one of her best dresses. The dinner will be held at a legendary New York restaurant. But it was all doomed from the start because, from Bunny’s perspective, everyone at the dinner is a phonie. Bunny sits at a table, biting her tongue, as she listens to grown adults talk about balsamic vinegar as if it matters in this messed up world of ours. I wanted to shout at them on Bunny’s behalf. It’s no wonder she cracks. Holden Caulfield loathed people he considered affected. He was a lot more vocal about it than Bunny is and I reacted to The Catcher in the Rye at lot like Bunny’s family members react to her. I still don’t like that little punk, but I think I finally see his point. Most of us would be tempted to tell Bunny and Holden, “Can’t you just fake it so that we can all have a nice time?” The plain truth is that they really can’t.

I finished Rabbits for Food a few days ago but it is still very much in my mind. Bunny’s story felt so honest, so insightful that I think it might have permanently affected me. This is an incredible book and I hope a lot of people read it. Spending a little time inside Bunny’s troubled, bright, often funny mind might make us all a little more kind and patient, a little more understanding of people who are hurt by the world and need more than a little help to get back on their metaphorical feet.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who have a person with depression in their life and want to understand why they can’t just will themselves better.

historical fiction · review

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson

Trigger warning for rape.

In The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson weaves together two historical events to create an incredible story of a woman caught in the web of racism, superstition, hard times, love, and more. Cussy Mary Carter is the last Blue Carter, the last member of a family who have strange blue skin. In spite of her color, Cussy Mary works as a Pack Mule Librarian to deliver books and magazines to remote hollers and mountains in her corner of eastern Kentucky. Nothing is easy for Cussy Mary in this book. At times, I wondered what more Richardson could throw at her protagonist without breaking the young woman. Thankfully, Cussy Mary is the kind of person who will always get back up after she’s been knocked down.

We don’t meet Cussy Mary under the best of circumstances. Her father is determined to get her married and he doesn’t really care who. Potential suitors are thin on the ground because of the color of her skin. She’s caucasian but she’s not white. Like her father and some members of her family, Cussy Mary has blue skin. (When she blushes, other characters say she looks like a blueberry.) Some people think the blue is contagious; more are sure that any children she has will be blue. In spite of her protestations, Cussy Mary gets hitched to the only man who will take her, a truly horrible man who has the decency to have a fatal stroke before he can permanently damage her. Now known as either the Widow Frazier or her old nickname, Bluet (after the damselfly), Cussy Mary returns to her job as a pack mule librarian. If she can just dodge the people who are more than willing to abuse her, physically or verbally, because of her skin, she’s content with her life as a librarian—no matter how much her father grumbles about the need for her to be safely married in case anything happens to him in the coal mine.

So much happens in The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek that it’s hard to believe that it all happens over the course of 1936. We follow Cussy Mary from her ill-fated marriage to her return to her route through the mountains. We also see the preacher stalking her, the man on the mountain who seems to like her and her color, and the doctor who will not let up until she agrees to let him try to cure her blueness. We see the best and (mostly) worst days of Cussy Mary’s 1936. To be honest, though, there were times when I was startled to be reminded that it was 1936. The people on Cussy Mary’s route are more likely to use herbs and folk remedies (such as “mad stones,” rocks that were believed to ward off rabies) than pay for a doctor. So little news makes it through that the mountains feel completely cut off from the rest of the world. Except for the occasionally reminder about World War I or vaccines, this book could have been set anywhere in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century.

The events of Cussy’s life not only help relate the stories of the Blue Fugates—the inspiration for Cussy’s Blue Carters—and the pack mule librarian program, but also the absurd cruelty of racial prejudice and the stubborn beliefs of backwoods Kentuckians. The only thing I didn’t understand about this book is Cussy’s devotion to her father. I loathed the man for most of the book. I consider his determination to marry his daughter off at the beginning of the book completely unforgivable. That said, there is a lot of food for thought in this book, assuming that readers can get past the brutal opening chapter of the book. Once I got past them, I was hooked by Cussy’s story. She reads like a quiet missionary, spreading the gospel of reading and educational betterment through books. Bad weather, worse roads, people who greet strangers with weapons, and a deeply disapproving father cannot stop her from delivering her battered books to her readers.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

A pack horse librarian delivers books to a mountain school (Image via Wikicommons)