Tag Archives: Book Review

Teen Takeover! New Autumn Releases We Can’t Stop Talking About!

While the start of Autumn may mean back to school it also means new book releases! Here are some of our favorites from the Teen Room! Enjoy!

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

A Pride & Prejudice retelling set in modern day Brooklyn! The tale follows Zuri Benitez and her four wild sisters through the struggle of teenage crushes, understanding family pride, and finding her place in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bushwick. While staying true to the original’s themes and tone this story holds its own with a well written plot and colorful characters that are easy to relate to!

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

This is Hank Green’s debut novel which we couldn’t be more excited for! April-May becomes an overnight internet sensation after her and her friend Andy take a video of the “Carls”, robots that resemble a samurai Transformer, and ends up being swept up in a whirlwind of international fame, never-ending questions, and her own emotions. The story is quirky, well-written, and focuses on the unification of humanity.

The Lady’s Guide to Piracy and Petticoats by Mackenzie Lee

The second installment in the Montague Siblings Series picks up a year after the adventure from Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, starring our favorite moody sister Felicity! Felicity wants nothing but to be a doctor, but when the subject of her gender is brought into question she embarks on a journey through the German countryside to find Alexander Platt, an eccentric physician, to take her on as a research assistant.  Lee has outdone herself again with Lady’s Guide by continuing to use her voice to tackle subjects like misogyny, intersectional privilege, and racism while keeping the tone exciting and relatable. Another five star story from Mackenzie Lee!

People Kill People by Ellen Hopkins

One tense week brings all six people into close contact in a town wrought with political and personal tensions. This story revolves around the theme of gun violence which has been a point of concern in the last year. While this novel is not one of her usual free-verse style stories People Kill People still contains elements of her signature style. Though slower than her normal narratives this novel is masterfully written with a powerful message that reflects issues in our everyday life.

Odd One Out by Nic Stone

From the best selling author of Dear, Martin comes a new story of self exploration, reuniting with old friends, making new friends, and self-discovery. Stone’s new novel revolves around three teens, each dealing with hardships that only the others can help figure out. The story deals with sexuality, friendship, and inward reflection making it an important novel for any high school aged teen. This book will break your heart but then carefully and lovingly put it back together again.

Happy Reading! Let us know which ones you’ll be checking out next!

 

Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies, and The End of Things…

Friendly Notice: The following post contains frank discussion and spoilers for the television mini-series Sharp Objects.

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

The past two summers have gifted us with heady, visually intriguing mini-series based on powerful works by women.  Last year’s Big Little Liesan adaptation of Lynne Moriarty’s 2015 novel broached the topic of domestic abuse, violence against women, and the repercussions–expected and unexpected–of that violence.  This summer, HBO aired Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel.  Both productions were directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.  They are both visually stunning, sensual, scenic productions that manage to convey as much (if not more) through silence than most productions do with pages and pages and pages of dialog.  Sharp Objects was a languorous, slow-moving southern gothic that made you feel sweaty from the sweltering heat portrayed on the screen.   Amy Adams’ performance was the stuff of legends and deserves applause, awards, and accolades.

Image result for sharp objects amy adams
Amy Adams in Sharp Objects, via The Wrap

However…

There be spoilers ahead, Matey!
(And let’s also note that we are talking about these shows as adaptations.  While we understand that the book and its film are independent pieces of art, they can also be considered side-by-side, which we are doing here).

We really need to talk about these endings. (Seriously.  Spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

Image result for spoilers


Both Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects are the kind of stories where the ending redefine the entire story, forcing the reader to go back, rethink the story they have just read, and contemplate not only the truth that’s been lurking under the surface, but also about how their assumptions about “good guys” and “bad guys” affected their ability to recognize what was going on.  They are clear, coherent, wonderfully intelligent, and thoughtful.  However, one of the major themes that connect both shows are the plethora of headlines talking about the “abrupt” and “confusing” endings.  So let me be clear: neither book has a confusing ending.  In fact, they are both notable and noteworthy for the definitive statements they make about women learning to heal from trauma.

Let’s stick, for now, with Sharp Objects, since it’s the freshest in my (and perhaps your) memory–and also because I’m more angry at it right now.  In the book, journalist Camille Preaker is sent back to her hometown to investigate the murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another.  From the beginning, we learn that Camille is depressed, self-harming (she carves words on her skin), and self-medicating with alcohol.  We learn that her younger sister, Marian, the undisputed ‘favorite child’ died of an unknown or unspecified disease, leaving Camille alone and forced to cope with her narcissistic, manipulative mother Adora.  Her return home refuels all the old tensions within her family, but now, Camille is focused on her half-sister Amma, some twenty years her junior, who is trapped with their mother and clearly coping badly.  Amma lives a double life: she acts out, takes drugs, and drinks (among other problematic behavior) outside, but in her house, Amma regresses, becoming a meek, innocent child that their mother can care for and manipulate.

Over the course of the story, we learn that Camille’s mother Adora suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, or, as it is now known, Factitious disorder imposed on another–a condition in which a caregiver develops a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, and harms the person in their care in order to be perceived as a helpful, saintly, martyr figure.   Adora herself was responsible for the death of Camille’s sister and, indeed, nearly kills Camille and Amma by feeding them a tonic containing rat poison.  The daughters are saved at the last moment, Adora is arrested, and Camille takes Amma to live with her.  Things seem fine until a girl at Amma’s new school is murdered, and Camille realizes that Amma was the murderer of the two girls, driven to violent rage when she though that the girls were getting more attention from Adora than Amma herself.  Distraught after Amma’s arrest, Camille uses a knife to carve more words into her back and very nearly begins cutting her face.  She is saved by her editor, who takes her in.  At the end of the book, Camille is living with the editor and his wife, and learning how to be part of a stable, loving family for once in her life.   For the record, this is a very watered-down version of the plot, and you should still read it.

The mini-series which aired on HBO (and concluded on Sunday) ends with Camille discovering vital (and horribly gruesome) evidence of Amma’s guilt concealed in Amma’s creepy-as-sin dollhouse.  Abruptly, we see Amma standing in the doorway.  She whispers “Don’t tell Mama,” before a brutally quick cut to the credits.  The only indication we have about the reality of Amma’s actions are a series of rapid-fire, hazy cuts that implicate Amma and her two friends in the deaths of the girls in Windgap, and Amma alone in the death of her friend from school.  The final shot of the entire episode is Amma’s face.

There have been a number of critics who have taken issue with this ending for its style, for its glamorization of Amma’s cruelty, for its ambiguity.  There is a lot to be said about this show, and this story, from the reality of female rage, the importance of telling women’s stories without pretense, or, indeed without needing male characters to justify their behavior.  But what has gone largely overlooked here, is how it destroys the real power of Sharp Objects‘ ending.

As we’ve pointed out here before, there is a troubling, pervasive trope of women victims in fiction–not only in mysteries, but they remain a primary offender.  For time immemorial, we have been treated to the image of a women’s silent body, violated and harmed.  We have been taught that women endure pain as a permanent condition–think of Miss Havisham forever in her wedding dress; or Bertha Mason in the attic; or any female ghost who ever haunted a house.  Women are vessels for pain in fiction, and we are taught to see that pain as inescapable.

Gillian Flynn flipped this trope on its head in Sharp Objects. From the beginning of the story, it seems that Camille is another damaged woman, trapped in her own pain.  This is a character who quite literally carved her pain into her own flesh, making her skin both an armor against the world and a cage from which she can never (apparently) break free.  In the show, we also learn in far more detail about the harm Camille endured as a result of the people in her town–yet another trap keeping her from healing.  At the book’s end, however, we see that Camille has learned that there is a way out from the horrible cycle of illness, anger, self-loathing, and self-deception that her family and her town practice.  She is given the choice and the opportunity to grow and heal–and she takes it.

That opportunity, that choice, that hope, is taken away from her in the mini-series.  By giving us Amma’s face at the end of the show, Sharp Objects is no longer Camille’s story.  Instead, she facilitates a story about Amma and Adora, and the ways in which violence destroys people, ruining the idea of a “pure victim.”  This is not to say this is not an important trope.  But to take away Camille’s hope is to perpetuate the notion that women in fiction (that women in general) suffer without resolution, and without real choice.  To take away the book’s ending is to dilute the shocking feminist ending of Sharp Objects in favor of a far more problematic one.  The miniseries states that women can be anything–victim, murderer, villain, or bystander.  Again, this is fine.  But the book says that women can change.  And that is vital.

On Westerns and Book Hangovers

We’ve talked here before about book hangovers, dear readers, where a book lingers for so long in your mind and heart that it’s difficult to find another book to suit.  Today, we discuss one of our staff member’s experiences with just such a book: Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman.

I grew up with westerns.  My godfather, one of the most quietly enthusiastic readers I have ever known, would spend hours in used bookstores and library book sales, searching out pulp Western novels by Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone, delighting in the now-forgotten stories that had exclamation points in the title (Montana! or perhaps it was something less specific, like Ghostown!), or the pulp novels like the kind shown at left (via Rough Edges).  My father grew up with the television show Gunsmoke and still watched re-runs with delight.  But even though I was surrounded by westerns, and could appreciate the love that others had for them, I struggled to find the enduring appeal in them myself..  This was largely because all the westerns to which I was exposed featured white men fulfilling traditionally white, masculine roles, enforcing a white, masculine code of justice, and having all-male, almost exclusively all-white adventures.  Though the women, like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, were strong, smart, and thoroughly capable, their screen time and their storylines were limited, especially in comparison to the men of Dodge.  They hardly ever left the saloon, and when they did, it was always on the arm of a man who would shoo them away to safety if there was a concern that harm might befall them.

So I was personally delighted to discover that a new generation of writers have begun re-imagining ‘the Wild West’ as a place of diversity, of feminism, and of magic.  The first such series for me was Laura Anne Gilman’s The Devil’s West series, which focuses on a young woman’s coming of age in an American West population by monsters, ghosts, and living embodiments of Native American myths that features characters who are both wise and vulnerable, and a setting that is positively immersive.  And it was while casting around for another such book to enjoy that I discovered Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol.  Malerman’s novel The Bird Box was a genuinely unsettling, sensory delight, so I knew this story would be memorable.  However, I wasn’t really prepared for how long this book, marketed as dark re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, would linger with me.

Malerman, via his author website: http://joshmalerman.com/about-josh-malerman/

The book itself is set, to quote Malerman, “somewhere between a western novel and not”, with elements of supernatural horror and steampunk mixed in with the some of the more familiar aspects of the Western genre, including a long pursuit across a literal and emotional wasteland. Though it is an exceptionally white West, without Native American/Indians, Black folk, or Spanish-speaking characters, its fictional-ish setting redeems what it lacks in historical accuracy.

The heroine of this novel, the titular Carol, is precisely the kind of person that traditional westerns would tend to overlook: though her age is not specifically mentioned, she is no young ingenue.  Carol is a self-assured married woman with her own fortune and relationships outside of her marriage. Indeed, when we meet her, she is mourning the loss of her closest friend, John Bowie, who has recently died of a mysterious and much-feared fever. Bowie, in addition to being one of the most intriguing secondary characters in recent memory, is also one of the only three people who knew the truth of her inexplicable condition–that she falls into a death-like comas during which she is completely paralyzed, but totally mentally alert.  The only other people who know are her husband Dwight, who married her only for her money, and her own true love, the outlaw James Moxie, who abandoned Carol when she revealed her secret. Although she tries to share the secret with her maid, Carol tumbles into unconsciousness before she can fully explain the condition that has shaped her life.

As Carol falls into her next coma, we learn that her husband Dwight has a plan to steal her fortune by convincing the community that she is dead, and burying her alive.  But Moxie also gets word of Dwight’s plan, thanks to the quick thinking of Carol’s maid, and he sets out to right the wrong that he committed against Carol so many years ago by facing up to her condition and rescuing her.  At the same time, Moxie himself is being pursued by madman named Smoke, who is hellbent on foiling his plan, destroying Moxie’s formidable reputation, and unleashing hell in the process. And it is here that the fairytale parallels begin to fall apart, and the real imagination of Malerman’s story shines through, as these two men chase each other down a lonesome trail that is at once dreamlike in its fancifulness and tangibly real in its old-west scenery.

Via Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gun-control-old-west-180968013/

As Jennifer Weiner so wisely pointed out in an editorial for  The New York Times last summer, it seems that readers “can’t get away from the man-boy as hero…If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups, whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.”  On the surface, it seems that Unbury Carol is yet another rehashing of this idea, with immature men controlling the narrative for their own purposes; Dwight’s murder plot is a combination of cowardness and narcissism; Moxie’s whole life (and Carol’s, as well) has been shaped by his inability to face up to reality; the chillingly maniacal Smoke, is driven by a hatred for Moxie and his own insatiable addictions.  Yet, even as this familiar premise plays out, Malerman subverts his own premise by letting us see Carol’s struggles in her coma to save herself, and to remember all her mother’s advice from her childhood. Moreover, Carol’s maid is the only person advocating for Carol throughout the book; and Moxie spends the story confronting his own demonic, destructive guilt, being forced to grow up and become worthy of the woman he still loves.  Beneath the familiar fictional facade, this is a book that shows women working for the benefit of themselves and other women, and men who are forced to confront their own immaturity and selfishness. The final revelation about Carol’s fate was a pitch-perfect ending to this modern western, combining actual historical oddities and a powerful legacy of feminine agency. From beginning to end, this book subverted expectations, from the character’s agency in the main plot to the truth of James Moxie’s magical reputation.  In challenging genre and gender assumptions, Malerman’s restructured, imaginative western is an unsettling, surprising, and spell-binding success.

Archivist Favorite Book For 2015

Attempting to pick a favorite book for 2015 was difficult task because many of the books that I have read this year have been books that I have read in the past and of those several k2-_5ee9edaf-90e1-432a-a41d-496896093b4c.v1were non-fiction. James Deetz (1930-2000), former University of Virginia archaeology professor, book In Small Things Forgotten is one book worth rereading. Deetz maintains his argument that understanding the significance of simple artifacts may give deeper insight into American history than letters journals and other written documents. In his 1996 edition, Deetz expanded many of the chapters and added an entire chapter on Africans and African-Americans, their artifacts, and lifestyles.

Deetz examines the definition of historical archaeology, as well as historical archaeologists’ relationships to material culture and how a site and its artifacts are important. Now this might sound a bit academic, but Deetz is able to write in a way that makes his work accessible and interesting to many outside the world of history. He also uncovers archaeology’s relationship with the historical record. For example, Deetz reveals that bones of wild animals were found in many African-American cellars and he hypothesizes that slaves most likely ate them to supplement their diet. This indicates that slaves had free time to hunt, which contradicts the historical record, which assumes that their white owners fully controlled their lives. Deetz mainly covers New England and the Chesapeake area because those are the locations of sites that he where he did the majority of his work. Although Deetz touches on the national and international context of his findings, for the most part he maintains a regional focus.

By studying everyday objects like dishes, houses, and gravestones, Deetz clearly draws the connection between history and archaeology, as well as the relationship to modern day life. Each chapter of In Small Things Forgotten explores a different aspect of historical archaeology. For example, chapter five, “I Would Have the Howse Stronge in Timber,” is especially fascinating because Deetz examines houses as material culture and writes about how saving houses creates its own issues. The last chapter, on Africans and African-Americans in America, is the most interesting. The written record is predominantly from white landowners and so the artifacts that slaves left behind allow historians to better understand their daily lives. Deetz also details how European housing differs from the housing that African-Americans had in America. Interestingly, he finds that the shotgun houses in America are more similar to those found in Haiti than those in West Africa.

Deetz uses a variety of sources throughout the book to support his arguments, including photos, journals, articles and books. A few of these sources include Noel Hume’s A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, which is a great book to help date early American objects and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. The numerous illustrations are useful and well drawn, adding significantly to the book’s readability because they help to visually explain Deetz’s arguments.

While it is a pleasure to read Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten, it also features clear language and structure. The book provides a new way to learn about early America because it serves as a counterpoint to the written record. Deetz has successfully updated this detailed and insightful book, explaining the importance of seemingly insignificant artifacts in a straightforward. It is a book that one can reread several times and continue to learn something new. The book is recommended for those interested in early American history or even those interested in genealogy.

http://evergreen.noblenet.org/eg/opac/record/1489233?locg=1

Erik Bauer
Archivist