Four-Star Short Stories and Non-Fiction Read in 2022: The Sleepless in Barrhaven Edition
I thought this post would include fiction, but I have a terrible headache and it's quite long already, so I'm going to post what I have.
Last Sunday night was the worst episode of insomnia I've had in years. I work early Monday morning, and I never go to bed early enough, but I can usually get at least five hours, which is enough to be functional and uncranky. This was one of those nights where you desperately tell yourself that surely you got more sleep than you feel like you did, but I really don't believe it. I saw every hour on the clock. Weird things hurt. My legs were twitchy. I was too hot, then too cold. I got through my work day, checked in on my parents, made dinner and then crashed for an hour - it was impossible not to. I felt weird for the rest of the day, and didn't do that whole "well I must be tired enough to sleep tonight without taking anything" thing.
On Tuesday evening Angus and I went over to have dinner with my parents (Matt had important work visitors so couldn't make it) before Angus headed back to Ithaca the next day. We started talking about Blue Monday - supposedly the saddest day of the year - and I said 'didn't it actually turn out to be a fake thing?' and my mom said she thought it was something travel agents made up. Then my dad said "well my chair got fixed, so it was a great day for me" and I said "hang on, that was yesterday! Blue Monday was yesterday? That was ABSOLUTELY the worst day in recent memory for me", and it wasn't confirmation bias because I didn't even know it was supposed to be. So now I don't know what to think. Except that I just realized "the saddest day of the year" is a weird thing to call a day that's only about three weeks into the new year.
Anyway, last night I had a fairly good sleep - the night before not so much (I'll tell you about my train wreck Saturday night baby-sitting my tripping dog some other time).
Four-Star Short Stories
The Best Horror of the Year 13 edited by Ellen Datlow: Synopsis from Goodreads: From Ellen Datlow (“the venerable queen of horror anthologies” (New York Times) comes a new entry in the series that has brought you stories from Stephen King and Neil Gaiman comes thrilling stories, the best horror stories available. For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the center of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the thirteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others. With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalog of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.
I always read these. There are always a few that don't quite hit, but overall they are very, very good. I always love A.C. Wise, who is in brutal good form here. Likewise Stephen Graham Jones. "Clever, Meat, and Block" by Maria Haskins is one of the more chilling zombie stories I've ever read. There's a really good Everest story - it's crossed my mind that it's funny that so many people want to climb mountains when mountain climbing is such an abundant source for horror stories, but then I guess no one should ever go camping or live in a house ever, either. "It Doesn't Feel Right" by Michael Marshall Smith starts with trying to put socks and shoes on a child "or, as it's known privately between Helena and I.... Footwear Vietnam". Okay, I'm looking these over and it's just making me sound like a deeply disturbed person for liking them. If you know you know, stop looking at me like that.
Someone in Time: Tales of Time-Crossed Romance edited by Jonathan Strahan: Synopsis from Goodreads: Even time travel can’t unravel love Time-travel is a way for writers to play with history and imagine different futures – for better, or worse. When romance is thrown into the mix, time-travel becomes a passionate tool, or heart-breaking weapon. A time agent in the 22nd century puts their whole mission at risk when they fall in love with the wrong person. No matter which part of history a man visits, he cannot not escape his ex. A woman is desperately in love with the time-space continuum, but it doesn’t love her back. As time passes and falls apart, a time-traveller must say goodbye to their soulmate. With stories from best-selling and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Alix E. Harrow and Nina Allan, this anthology gives a taste for the rich treasure trove of stories we can imagine with love, loss and reunion across time and space.
-"He imagined, when he finally fell into the right time and place, the story he was destined to have, he would feel a tiny, silent pop, like a puzzle piece snapping into place, or teeth breaking the skin of an apple." (Roadside Attraction by Alix E. Harrow)
I can never resist a book of time travel stories, especially a library ebook of them that is free and has the added benefit of appearing before me without me having to get off my ass to obtain it. It took me an embarrassing number of stories before I reread the title and realized it was time-travel ROMANCE, which I just went on and on about not really being my thing. I'm kind of glad about that, because I also said that maybe I should read more romance because when romance is the focus, hopefully it will be an interesting spin on romance. Turns out that romance involving time travel is very much my thing. This collection is also refreshingly non-heteronormative - I was four or five stories in before there was an un-gay one.
Lesser-Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu: Synopsis from Goodreads: In the twelve unforgettable tales of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange, such that a girl growing wings on her legs feels like an ordinary rite of passage, while a bug-infested house becomes an impossible, Kafkaesque nightmare. Each story builds a new world all its own: a group of children steal a haunted doll; a runaway bride encounters a sea monster; a vendor sells toy boxes that seemingly control the passage of time; an insomniac is seduced by the Sandman. These visions of modern life wrestle with themes of death and technological consequence, guilt and sexuality, and unmask the contradictions that exist within all of us. Mesmerizing, electric, and wholly original, Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century blurs the boundaries of the real and fantastic, offering intricate and surprising insights into human nature.
-"There was a way in which Liddy's wings didn't strike us as extraordinary. The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked through around the edges. Everything was baffling and secretive then, especially our own bodies, sprouting all kinds of outgrowths that were meant to be hidden, desperately ignored and not discussed, hairs and lumps that could be weaponized against us."
Another from the Giller Prize shortlist. These are quite genre-blurring - some veer closer to dark fantasy/sci fi, even horror, but I think when it's this literary we just call it magical realism? I'm not trying to be snarky, except maybe I am a little bit because speculative literature often gets short shrift, when in fact sometimes fiction that isn't obsessed with verisimilitude is the best way to really get at how strange it can feel to be a human person experiencing the world. I loved these - they deal with the courageous vulnerability of childhood, the wonders and perils of technology, and the vast and peculiar territory of marriage; they are thought-provoking and unsettling, poignant and beautifully written.
All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katherine Smyth: Synopsis from Goodreads: A wise, lyrical memoir about the power of literature to help us read our own lives -- and see clearly the people we love most. Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death -- a calamity that claimed her favorite person--she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. Smyth's story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel--and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console. Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author.Sometimes I read or buy books in groups according to whimsical rules (e.g. Middlegame, Middlemarch and The City in the Middle of the Night). After my SIL sent me My Life in Middlemarch, I bought this book and one called How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (haven't read that one yet).
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet: Synopsis from Goodreads: "I was told to come alone. I was not to carry any identification, and would have to leave my cell phone, audio recorder, watch, and purse at my hotel. . . ." For her whole life, Souad Mekhennet, a reporter for The Washington Post who was born and educated in Germany, has had to balance the two sides of her upbringing - Muslim and Western. She has also sought to provide a mediating voice between these cultures, which too often misunderstand each other. In this compelling and evocative memoir, we accompany Mekhennet as she journeys behind the lines of jihad, starting in the German neighborhoods where the 9/11 plotters were radicalized and the Iraqi neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shia turned against one another, and culminating on the Turkish/Syrian border region where ISIS is a daily presence. In her travels across the Middle East and North Africa, she documents her chilling run-ins with various intelligence services and shows why the Arab Spring never lived up to its promise. She then returns to Europe, first in London, where she uncovers the identity of the notorious ISIS executioner "Jihadi John," and then in France, Belgium, and her native Germany, where terror has come to the heart of Western civilization.Mekhennet's background has given her unique access to some of the world's most wanted men, who generally refuse to speak to Western journalists. She is not afraid to face personal danger to reach out to individuals in the inner circles of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and their affiliates; when she is told to come alone to an interview, she never knows what awaits at her destination. Souad Mekhennet is an ideal guide to introduce us to the human beings behind the ominous headlines, as she shares her transformative journey with us. Hers is a story you will not soon forget.
fearless. Mekehennet is German-born but of Muslim descent, which allowed her to blend in in countries where white journalists stood out. She also made a point of visiting places she was writing about, and expressed a level of contempt for journalists who only did interviews by phone. I was breathless during some of the dangerous exploits she described even though I knew she lived to write about them.
This gave me a lot to think about, and to research further, since it was more of a memoir that sometimes touched fairly lightly on each period of her life and reportage.
Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers by Jude Ellison S. Doyle: Synopsis from Goodreads: Women have always been seen as monsters. Men from Aristotle to Freud have insisted that women are freakish creatures, capable of immense destruction. Maybe they are. And maybe that’s a good thing... Sady Doyle, hailed as “smart, funny and fearless” by the Boston Globe, takes readers on a tour of the female dark side, from the biblical Lilith to Dracula’s Lucy Westenra, from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park to the teen witches of The Craft. She illuminates the women who have shaped our nightmares: Serial killer Ed Gein’s “domineering” mother Augusta; exorcism casualty Anneliese Michel, starving herself to death to quell her demons; author Mary Shelley, dreaming her dead child back to life. These monsters embody patriarchal fear of women, and illustrate the violence with which men enforce traditionally feminine roles. They also speak to the primal threat of a woman who takes back her power. In a dark and dangerous world, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers asks women to look to monsters for the ferocity we all need to survive. “Some people take a scalpel to the heart of media culture; Sady Doyle brings a bone saw, a melon baller, and a machete.”—Andi Zeisler, author of We Were Feminists Once.
Sometimes I go to buy one book and end up buying a whack of books based on whatever falls into the orbit of the first book. The minute I opened it and saw the opening quote, which was from the movie The Craft, I knew it was going to be good. It's not like she breaks any new ground for anyone who has half a clue about how terrified men in general are of women in general, but I loved how she illustrated it, and her style is so fast and smart and funny. For a slightly more scholarly take I like I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire, but for a pop culture take this is flawless.
Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway: Synopsis from Goodreads: Capricious, big-hearted, joyful: an epic memoir from one of Canada's most acclaimed Indigenous writers and performers. Tomson Highway was born in a snowbank on an island in the sub-Arctic, the eleventh of twelve children in a nomadic, caribou-hunting Cree family. Growing up in a land of ten thousand lakes and islands, Tomson relished being pulled by dogsled beneath a night sky alive with stars, sucking the juices from roasted muskrat tails, and singing country music songs with his impossibly beautiful older sister and her teenaged friends. Surrounded by the love of his family and the vast, mesmerizing landscape they called home, his was in many ways an idyllic far-north childhood. But five of Tomson's siblings died in childhood, and Balazee and Joe Highway, who loved their surviving children profoundly, wanted their two youngest sons, Tomson and Rene, to enjoy opportunities as big as the world. And so when Tomson was six, he was flown south by float plane to attend a residential school. A year later Rene joined him to begin the rest of their education. In 1990 Rene Highway, a world-renowned dancer, died of an AIDS-related illness. Permanent Astonishment: Growing Up in the Land of Snow and Sky is Tomson's extravagant embrace of his younger brother's final words: Don't mourn me, be joyful. His memoir offers insights, both hilarious and profound, into the Cree experience of culture, conquest, and survival.
I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy: Synopsis from Goodreads: A heartbreaking and hilarious memoir by iCarly and Sam & Cat star Jennette McCurdy about her struggles as a former child actor—including eating disorders, addiction, and a complicated relationship with her overbearing mother—and how she retook control of her life. Jennette McCurdy was six years old when she had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for her only daughter to become a star, and Jennette would do anything to make her mother happy. So she went along with what Mom called “calorie restriction,” eating little and weighing herself five times a day. She endured extensive at-home makeovers while Mom chided, “Your eyelashes are invisible, okay? You think Dakota Fanning doesn’t tint hers?” She was even showered by Mom until age sixteen while sharing her diaries, email, and all her income. In I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recounts all this in unflinching detail—just as she chronicles what happens when the dream finally comes true. Cast in a new Nickelodeon series called iCarly, she is thrust into fame. Though Mom is ecstatic, emailing fan club moderators and getting on a first-name basis with the paparazzi (“Hi Gale!”), Jennette is riddled with anxiety, shame, and self-loathing, which manifest into eating disorders, addiction, and a series of unhealthy relationships. These issues only get worse when, soon after taking the lead in the iCarly spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande, her mother dies of cancer. Finally, after discovering therapy and quitting acting, Jennette embarks on recovery and decides for the first time in her life what she really wants. Told with refreshing candor and dark humor, I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair.
-”’You’re just getting boobies.’
Oh. No. The only thing worse than a cancer diagnosis is a growing-up diagnosis. I am horrified of growing up. First, I’m small for my age, which is a benefit in showbiz because I can book roles for characters younger than me. I can work longer hours on set and have to take fewer breaks by law. Logistics aside, I’m more cooperative and can take direction better than those seven-year-old scumbags.”
-”I can’t go places anymore without being recognized. I no longer go to Disneyland, my favorite place, because last time I tried, I was walking down Main Street and so many people came up to me that they had to stop the Christmas Fantasy Parade midway through. Goofy looked pissed.”
I had seen that this was coming out but didn't have any particular plans to read it (although I was all in favour of her having written it and it being an all-out bestseller); it's just not my usual genre. Then I saw browsing my library's express ebooks and it was available, so I borrowed it, figuring I could use it for the 'written by someone not known for being a writer' book bingo square, and couldn't stop reading once I had started.
I was happy to know that McCurdy was actually friends with Miranda Cosgrove, and sad that she was resentful of Ariana Grande, although she was honest and clear-eyed about how they were played against each other. She seems to be in a pretty good place now, although I don't see how you ever outgrow that kind of abuse. She's apparently signed a deal to write fiction, and I wish her all the success and happiness in the world.
Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time by Michael Palin: Synopsis from Goodreads: Intrepid voyager, writer and comedian Michael Palin follows the trail of two expeditions made by the Royal Navy's HMS Erebus to opposite ends of the globe, reliving the voyages and investigating the ship itself, lost on the final Franklin expedition and discovered with the help of Inuit knowledge in 2014. The story of a ship begins after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, when Great Britain had more bomb ships than it had enemies. The solid, reinforced hulls of HMS Erebus, and another bomb ship, HMS Terror, made them suitable for discovering what lay at the coldest ends of the earth. n 1839, Erebus was chosen as the flagship of an expedition to penetrate south to explore Antarctica. Under the leadership of the charismatic James Clark Ross, she and HMS Terror sailed further south than anyone had been before. But Antarctica never captured the national imagination; what the British navy needed now was confirmation of its superiority by making the discovery, once and for all, of a route through the North-West Passage.Chosen to lead the mission was Sir John Franklin, at 59 someone many considered too old for such a hazardous journey. Nevertheless, he and his men confidently sailed away down the Thames in April 1845. Provisioned for three winters in the Arctic, Erebus and Terror and the 129 men of the Franklin expedition were seen heading west by two whalers in late July.
No one ever saw them again.
For generations, the mystery of what had happened to the ships endured. Then, on September 9th, 2014, came the almost unbelievable news: HMS Erebus had been discovered thirty feet below the Arctic waters, by a Parks Canada exploration ship.
Palin looks at the Erebus story through the different motives of the two expeditions, one scientific and successful, the other nationalistic and disastrous. He examines the past by means of the extensive historical record and travels in the present day to those places where there is still an echo of Erebus herself, from the dockyard where she was built, to Tasmania where the Antarctic voyage began and the Falkland Islands, then on to the Canadian Arctic, to get a sense of what the conditions must have been like for the starving, stumbling sailors as they abandoned their ships to the ice. And of course the story has a future. It lies ten metres down in the waters of Nunavut's Queen Maud Gulf, where many secrets wait to be revealed.
The insomina sounds so awful. I'd never heard of the saddest day of the year, but I agree with Suzanne - glad you got it out of the way. Hope the rest of the year is all up hill for you.