A young woman tries to reconcile her childhood in wartorn Croatia with her comfortable American college life in Sara Nović's smart and insightful debut, which will please fans of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena or the essays of Aleksander Hemon. Ana is just 10 years old when Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia, and at first war feels like a game. But when her baby sister becomes ill, her parents are forced into a risky decision that changes everything. The novel cuts between Zagreb in 1991 and New York City in 2001, as Ana tries to reconcile her past with her present.
Nović ably conveys Ana's plight, torn between two cultures and unable to feel at home in either one. Ana struggles to explain her history to well-meaning Americans who inquire about it. Eventually, she stops trying.
Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions were what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight, that prompted these questions. They asked because they hadn’t smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn’t fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home.
What are you reading this week?
Daniel Handler—perhaps better known as Lemony Snicket—is the sort of writer whose work you can't fail to recognize. There's always a playful, imaginative turn of phrase just around the corner. Something that's just not quite right. As shown below, in a passage where beleaugered father Phil Needle has had enough of the angst of his teen daughter, a pirate in the making who has recently been caught shoplifting.
Phil Needle looked down at the front section of the newspaper, which at the time this story takes place showed a photograph of a senator who was resigning his position in order to spend more time with his family. Phil Needle also wanted to spend more time with the senator's family. Look at them! Such beaming daughters! Not like Gwen, who was giving her mother a look of such violent nonchalance—I don't give a fuck—that she might as well have said it out loud.
"Talk to her," Marina said to him. "I'll finish your suitcase." Her robe ruffled with every step out of the kitchen. Gwen glared at everywhere. Phil Needle wished he could give her a tiny package with whatever it was inside, whatever her scowling little soul desired, but he couldn't. He couldn't, and since he couldn't, would she just goddamn stop?
What are you reading this week?
Talk about a killer collaboration! MWA Grand Master Mary Higgins Clark and best-selling author Alafair Burke have teamed up for the brand new Under Suspicion series, starring characters from Clark's I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
The series centers on "Under Suspicion," a cold case reality TV show. With the help of lawyer and "Under Suspicion" host Alex Buckley, TV producer Laurie Moran takes on the 20-year-old "Cinderella Murder." The body of UCLA theater student Susan Dempsey was found in L.A.'s Lauren Canyon Park, after she missed her father's birthday party to audition for a movie. The Buckley-Moran slething duo is in hot pursuit of some new evidence, and their adventures together will surely satisfy Clark fans.
Rosemary Dempsey was Laurie's reason for moving The Cinderella Murder to the top of her list for the show's next installment.
The network had been pressuring here to feature a case from the Midwest: the unsolved murder of a child beauty pageant contestant inside her family's home. The case had already been the subject of countless books and television shows over the past two decades. Laurie kept telling her boss, Brett Young, that there was nothing new for Under Suspicion to add.
"Who cares?" Brett had argued. "Every time we have an excuse to play those adorable pageant videos, our ratings skyrocket."
Laurie was not about the exploit the death of a child to bolster her network's ratings. Starting her research from scratch, she stumbled onto a true-crime blog featuring a "where are they now?" post about the Cinderella case. The blogger appeared to have simply Googled the various people involved in the case: Susan's boyfriend was a working actor, her research partner had gone on to find dot-com success, Frank Parker was... Frank Parker.
The blog post quoted only one source: Rosemary Dempsey, whose phone number was still listed, "just in case anyone ever needs to tell me something about my daughter's death." Rosemary told the blogger that she was willing to do anything to find out the truth about her daughter's murder. She also said that she was convinced that the stress caused by Susan's death contributed to her husband's stroke.
The overall tone of the blog post, filled with tawdry innuendo, left Laurie feeling sick. The author hinted, with no factual support, that Susan's desire to be a star might have made her willing to do anything to land a plumb role with an emerging talent like Parker. She speculated, again with no proof, that a consensual liason may have "gone wrong."
What are you reading today?
Chloe Benjamin delves into the rich, unsettling world of dreams in her debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.
Sylvie Patterson is dubious when she and her boyfriend move to Wisconsin to assist a respected experimental psychologist, Dr. Keller, with his secretive sleep studies. However, Sylvie soon finds herself under the spell of the strange Dr. Keller’s theories—that dreams have something important and urgent to tell us. The trio are fascinated by lucid dreaming and the ability to further understand the self by inspecting dreams. But as they explore the subconscious landscape, boundaries are crossed, and Sylvie’s carefully constructed world begins to crumble.
“Most of us are physically paralyzed during REM sleep, but these patients aren’t, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a dreamer out of bed. They can attack their bedmates, trying to fight off intruders that aren’t there. Some have even jumped out of windows. These people are disturbed at a subconscious level—and in order to help them, we have to meet them there. Lucidity enables them to realize they’re dreaming. It enables them to intervene.”
“So you’re hacking in.”
His face was pleasant enough, but his voice had a new edge.
“What do you mean?”
He leaned back on the bed, his elbows propped up behind him, and cocked his head.
“You’re intruders. Robbing the bank of the subconscious.”
What are you reading this week?
In her 35th novel, best-selling science fiction and fantasy author Tepper brings back two of her favorite characters for another adventure. Abasio the Dyer (first seen in A Plague of Angels) and his wife, Xulai, are on a trip with a mission: to warn the residents of Tingawa of a literal sea change heading their way. The waters are rising, and people must adapt to a sea-dwelling lifestyle. Not exactly the most welcome of messages, as they discover . . .
Though they had been on this journey for almost a year now, their reception from place to place had been so varied that they had been unable to settle on a routine. Words and phrases that were acceptable in one village turned out to be fighting words in the next place, even though they tried to avoid any fighting at all. If hostility seemed imminent, they had the means to leave, and they did leave: horses, wagon, and all. Essentially they had three duties: first to explain that the world was being drowned; second to let people know about the sea-children. Third: to survive!
What are you reading this week?
Amy hates her job at the rip-off Ikea superstore, Orsk. And now, she’s been wrangled into taking a night shift with some of her coworkers to catch the vandal who’s been roaming the store after dark. But as the gang investigates strange happenings amidst the shoddily made furniture, it becomes clear that there’s something far more sinister roaming the showroom floor after the industrial lights are dimmed.
Illustrated catalogue-style with furniture that gets progressively more disturbing with each chapter, this book takes a stab at American consumer culture. However, lest you think it's solely satirical fun, I’ll have you know that I slept with the light on after finishing this book. Thankfully, my town doesn't have an Ikea.
Her cell phone unleashed a shrill Woody Woodpecker laugh, informing her that she’d received a text message. Basil watched in disbelief as she fumbled the phone out of her pocket.
“Of course,” Basil announced to the trainees, “Amy knows that partners are never permitted to bring their phones onto the Showroom floor.”
“It’s another help message,” she explained, showing him the phone’s screen.
A few weeks earlier, several floor partners had started receiving one-word texts reading help from the same private number. Proliferating like rabbits, the texts came pouring in at all hours, and they were freaking people out. Corporate claimed that IT was powerless to address the issue since It was technically not Orsk related.
Are you reading anything spooky as Halloween approaches?
We know who the killer is (or do we?) in the new thriller by Japanese author Nakamura (The Thief), so the question at hand—it would seem—is why. But even that doesn't really sum it up, as this dark and twisty thriller dives to nightmarish depths to explore the ugliest parts of the human mind.
Photographer Yudai Kiharazaka has been sentenced to death for the murders of two women who were incinerated in two fires. After becoming fascinated by one of Kiharazaka's photographs—of black butterflies obscuring a possibly female figure—the story's narrator sets out to write a book about the murders. The story unfolds through letters from Kiharazaka to the narrator and to his sister, and through the narrator's eyes.
When reading Last Winter, We Parted, it feels like I'm exploring the minds of characters in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Werner Herzog's documentary Into the Abyss. It's a creepy feeling. An excerpt from one of Kiharazaka's letters:
I would look away from the butterfly. For that instant, the butterfly was no longer mine. Or when I photographed it from the right side, I couldn't capture its left side. That's why you think it would make sense to film it, right? Wrong. What I wanted was a single moment. I Wanted a single moment of that butterfly. Yet for the butterfly, that moment was one of countless moments. And there was no way that I could capture all of them.
I spent entire days clicking the shutter at that butterfly. I must have fallen in love with it. I don't know. I put it in a cage and kept it, but I was in despair over the fact that I could never completely possess the butterfly. Well, actually, it was probably despair about the way that the world itself works. Why, when a "subject" is right in front of us, are we only capable of recognizing, of grasping, that one small part we see? That butterfly was the reason I was hospitalized the first time. I don't remember, but apparently I wouldn't stop taking photos—not even to eat—and when I collapsed, my sister was the one who took care of me. Then I went to the hospital. I was given a psychological diagnosis. Anxiety neurosis, I think it was. In the medical field, I guess they like to be able to put a name to it when people deviate from the norm.
I wonder if I've made myself clear about the fact that I have no interest in butterfly specimens. I don't understand why those guys like to collect and mount them. I mean, they kill their butterflies, thereby preventing any further possibility of their motion. Which means they will never possess the butterflies in their beautiful flight . . . Do you know what I mean?
What are you reading?
There might not be a lot of action in David Bell's new novel, but there's plenty of moodiness and tension-filled looks to slowly build a mystery. And I sure do love a slow burner, expecially when a book fills the air with on-point characterization.
The questions begin after Jason Danvers' sister Hayden, a former addict, appears at his doorstep with an apology and her teenage daughter in tow. Hayden is super cryptic about some "things" she has to take care of, so it's no surprise that she leaves her daughter with Jason and his wife and doesn't come back. All of this is curious timing, considering that Jason was recently questioned by police about his missing friend, Logan, who disappeared 17 years ago. The truth has to come out sometime . . .
Jason drove with no destination in mind. He considered going home but decided that Nora was right and what Sierra needed more than anything was distraction. She didn't speak as they drove away from the Owl and back toward downtown. She stopped commenting on passing sights. She didn't say anything. She pulled her feet up onto the seat and stared out the window, her fingernail in her mouth again.
"Do you want to see the house your mom and I grew up in?" Jason asked.
"Always," Sierra said.
"You've always wanted to see it?"
"Why did she say 'always'?" Her voice was hollow. She kept her head turned away from Jason. "It would be one thing if she just wrote and told me that she loved me. She does that kind of stuff all the time. But why did she say she'd always love me? Isn't that what you say to someone when you think you're never going to see them again?"
What are you reading?
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Dating is hard. So are statistics. But Christian Rudder, the co-founder of the dating site OkCupid, presents the facts on both in entertaining, accessible style in Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking. Rudder uses the data you thought was private—browsing history, how long you stare at your ex’s Facebook photos, your dating profile and messages—and paints a (sometimes horrifying) portrait of human behavior. Thankfully, it’s all reported anonymously, but that’s not to say you won’t recognize yourself in the statistics. Private browsing? Pshaw. The Internet holds all, and it doesn’t forget.
People tend to run wild on those match questions, marking all kind of stuff as "mandatory," in essence putting a checklist to the world: I’m looking for a dog-loving, agnostic, nonsmoking liberal who’s never had kids—and who’s good in bed, of course. But very humble questions like Do you like scary movies? And Have you ever traveled alone to another country? have amazing predictive power. If you’re ever stumped on what to ask someone on a first date, try those. In about three-quarters of the long-term couples OkCupid has ever brought together, both people have answered them the same way, either both “yes” or both “no.” People tend to overemphasize the big, splashy things: faith, politics, certainly looks, but they don’t matter nearly as much as everyone thinks. Sometimes, they don’t matter at all.
What have you been reading lately?