book reviews

Review: The Collected Schizophrenias

The Collected Schizophrenias

Esmé Weijun Wang

Stumbled upon this at my favorite local used bookshop, the Bookworm in Boulder, Colorado,CollectedSchizophrenias and what a lucky find. I was unfamiliar with Wang’s writing, but loved the theme of this essay collection: her life with schizoaffective disorder and other explorations of mental illness.

Through essays that combine research and personal experience, Wang shows us the different flavors of schizophrenia, which are more diverse than public perception or TV and film portrayals.

She addresses the media portrayal head on in the essays “Reality, On-Screen” and “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” which are, in turn, shocking and heartbreaking. The author — who is both wickedly smart and funny — studied at Yale and Stanford, yet, during psychotic episodes becomes so unmoored that her husband has to explain that movies and television shows are fictional.

She also explores the topic of involuntary commitment, the ethics of procreation and delves into the darkest corners of mental illness: violence (rare in actually, but over-represented in the media) in “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed” and Cotard’s delusion (belief that oneself is dead) in “Perdition Days.”

My favorites are “Diagnosis,” the lead essay that introduces us to her journey, and “Yale Will Not Save You,” which reveals the shortcomings of academic institutions in addressing the mental health needs of students.

The Collected Schizophrenias won the 2019 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and that means something. Graywolf Press publishes incredible books that challenge and enlighten, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which I consider to be one of the best books of the decade.

Likewise, The Collected Schizophrenias will challenge your preconceived notions of mental illness, introduce you to its many manifestations and delight you with confident prose, brutal vulnerability and a narrative quest that is more of a question than an answer.

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Review: Tinfoil Butterfly

Tinfoil Butterfly

Rachel Eve Moulton

This dynamic debut novel begins in motion — two strangers in a van charging throughTinfoilButterfly the barrens of South Dakota — and never lets its foot off the gas. Our narrator, Emma, leads us on a brutal and heartbreaking journey that is as delightful as it is disturbing.

Emma is on the run from her troubled past, wounded physically and spiritually, and hitches a ride with a dirtbag named Lowell. We meet her in peril, but soon learn that Emma is not as vulnerable as her circumstances suggest.

Leaving Lowell for dead by the side of the highway, she drives his van toward the Badlands as a snowstorm rolls in. Low on gas, Emma takes an off ramp in hopes of finding a rest stop, but instead rolls to a stop in front of a shuttered diner — but she is not alone.

Enter Earl, a precocious child wearing a tinfoil mask to cover scars of his own.

Emma is thrust into Earl’s nightmare home life, where they are stalked by his sadistic father. World’s collide when a figure from Emma’s past finds her in this abandoned town, bent on revenge.

Emma and Earl may be an odd couple, but both have a resourcefulness borne of abuse, and they have to fight together if either are to survive the Badlands.

This is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and an introduction to a new author I’m excited to read more from. Among new authors to watch, I would place Moulton alongside Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black).

Hopelessness reigns throughout Tinfoil Butterfly. Emma claws her way out of one crisis into another, and the only victories available to her are Pyrrhic. By the end of this deathmatch all the characters have shed blood and flesh and will wear the scars forever.

Likewise, this book will haunt the reader long after it’s been finished and placed on the shelf.

Review: Friday Black

Friday Black: Stories

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black is the most exciting debut of short fiction I’ve read since Carmen Maria Friday BlackMachado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I would argue this is the most important work of fiction of the past year. If you’re troubled by the rise of white nationalism and right-wing terrorism, this book will in turns console, enrage and rally you.

I ground my teeth reading these stories, horrified at the injustices revealed within, particularly two inspired by George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 but was acquitted of second-degree murder charges.

However, to say that injustices are revealed is not exactly the right term, as Adjei-Brenyah doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know. These are not quite reflections of reality either, but rather refractions, a spoon bending in a glass of water.

I would include the lead story, “The Finkelstein 5,” in my all-time top 40 short stories. In this tale, a black man, Emmanuel, navigates each moment conscious of his “Blackness.” Talking on the phone, he can dial down his “Blackness” to a 1.5 out of 10, but in person the lowest he can go is a 4.0.

At the mall, he maintains a “smooth 5.0.” When a cashier forgets to give him a receipt for his purchase, he asks her for it, knowing that the store’s security guard will ask for proof of purchase on his way out.

The degenerative effect of this constant self-monitoring and the frustration it causes screams from the opening paragraph:

“Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel. Her neck jagged with red savagery. She was silent, but he could feel her waiting for him to do something, anything.”

In the story, a George Zimmerman-inspired character, named George, has beheaded five black children with a chainsaw outside a public library. He was acquitted because he believed he was in danger, and as his attorney argues, in America, “if you believe something, anything, then that’s all that counts.”

While en route to a job interview, Emmanuel bumps into a friend who is part of a vigilante group seeking retribution. They engage in “Naming”—attacking random white people while chanting the name of one of the murdered children. Emmanuel joins the group in the park, and, armed with a baseball bat, they find a target. As he chants the name “Fela St. John,” he allows his “Blackness” to rise to a 10.0.

What follows is an unexpected, but inevitable conclusion.

It’s no surprise that Adjei-Brenyah studied under George Saunders at Syracuse, as both men use near-future dystopias to reveal the absurdities of quotidian life that we accept as normal. From retail shops to classrooms to theme parks, Adjei-Brenyah explores the ways in which the totalitarian infects our daily lives, not with subtlety, but hyperbole.

It’s a reminder that dystopias are not imposed upon humanity—humans create them by elevating our worst tendencies (racism, vanity, consumerism, nationalism, etc.) into virtues. In fact, the oppressive environments and social customs in Adjei-Brenyah’s world are so believable that I worry it may be dismissive to refer to them as dystopias when they could well be different POVs of current reality.

The tale with the sharpest teeth is “Zimmer Land,” which concerns the inner turmoil of a black actor, Zay, working in a theme park where visitors can embrace their prejudices. His role is to walk along the sidewalk of a gated community and be confronted by the “homeowners.”

He wears a special protection suit equipped with blood packets for when he is inevitably shot in the name of law and order.

In one of the most heartbreaking passages, we see how this plays out. A patron runs from their house to confront him, asking him what he’s doing here. Zay says he lives there and asks what the patron is doing there. It’s a cyclical conversation that serves as pretense for the patron to shoot Zay in the street.

These two men asked each other the same question, and each gave the same answer. But clearly, “I live here” is only an acceptable answer for one of them.

Zay struggles with the ethics of his job, particularly when the park’s owner, Heland Zimmer, begins to allow entry to children.

Friday Black is a collection of funny, depressing, impactful stories of people trapped in impossible situations. It’s a biting look at 21st century America, and the arrival of a powerful new voice in fiction.

Review: Mira Grant, Into the Drowning Deep

I am grateful that the back cover synopsis of Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep is vague about the plot. I’m usually not a fan of creature horror, and had I known the antagonists were mythical sea beasts, I likely wouldn’t have cracked the spine.

But I’m glad I did, because I absolutely loved this book. It is a page-burning horror cruise that generates terror through both claustrophobia and infinite Drowning_Deepspace (more about that later).

It begins with found footage of a documentary film crew searching for cryptids in the ocean (horror at sea and found footage—two of my favorite things!). But is the footage real, or simply a publicity stunt?

Considering the impossibility of what appears on the film, and a conspiratorial public ready to scream “crisis actor” when confronted with visual evidence it doesn’t want to be true, it’s unclear whether or not the video is a hoax.

Seven years later, a team is assembled aboard the Melusine to retrace the path of the doomed ship and return with answers to these questions. On board are dozens of scientists, a journalist (Olivia) and armed guards—and most notably, Tory, the sister of one of the victims of the earlier voyage.

So how is Grant able to elicit both claustrophobic and infinite terror at once? The appeal of seafaring horror, for me, is that it captures the smallness we feel when confronted with the vastness of the universe. Like Bowie’s Major Tom, a threshold is crossed at which point help is not possible.

Though the safety tethers aboard the Melusine are mostly psychological to begin with—radio contact, ornamental defense shields—when they are severed, the crew aboard the Melusine comes undone.

Once the creatures have breached the deck the infinite is replaced by something equally menacing: the finite. Following the scientists as they navigate the levels of the ship (in particular Olivia’s ascent through a glorified laundry chute) is true white-knuckle reading.

Thus far, this review has been quite vague—perhaps because I don’t want to reveal the monster component. Creature features only work when there is an element of social commentary, and Grant does a wonderful job of balancing a diverse cast of humans, creatures and their interactions without falling into the traps of cliché.

The ship becomes its own floating ecosystem. Relationships begin, loved ones are lost and when the social bonds of the passengers break down, it becomes a microcosm of a society that no longer knows how to communicate with one another.

For Tory and Olivia to survive and pursue their seafaring romance on land, they’ll need to overcome not only the threats of nature and sea, but also the voyage’s corporate sponsors and the other passengers.

Grant is a gifted writer, and she knows how to draw us in and then break our hearts. She gets us to invest in her characters, and isn’t afraid to kill them off. The blood and gore are bountiful on this adventure, but it’s the characters who make this one of the best horror novels of the past few years.

Peter Stenson: Thirty-Seven

Whether it’s sociological interest or morbid curiosity, we are fascinated with cults. From Heaven’s Gate and Scientology to NXIVM, we alternately view their members as 37monsters, martyrs, or victims. Mason Hue, the narrator of Peter Stenson’s Thirty-Seven, is all three.

When we meet Mason he is still a teenager, but of legal age, freshly discharged from a mental institution where he lived after being part of a cult known as the Survivors. The Survivors, who ritually poisoned themselves with chemotherapy drugs to achieve a state of pure honesty, earned notoriety after going on a killing spree and committing mass suicide.

But what happens to Mason, who was 15 at the time, when you survive the Survivors?

Now living in Denver, he has a boss and sometimes-girlfriend Talley, and when she learns his secret she becomes fascinated with the movement’s beliefs. And before long, she’s as entangled in Mason’s narrative as we are.

Thirty-Seven is the early front-runner for best transgressive novel of the year, not only for the story itself (a gritty mind-fuck confessional) but for Stenson’s handling of the narrative. There are many great passages in Thirty-Seven, but perhaps none as stealthy as this one: “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step.”

It’s a simple line, yes, one that you breeze over at first, but at this point in the story Mason (the eponymous Thirty-Seven), is sneaking into his childhood home. In a book filled with violence and philosophy and sex and recreational cancer treatment, why does this seemingly innocuous line stand out?

Because unreliable narrators are fun to read, but difficult to write convincingly. This is the world according to Mason Hues, and time and again, he proves to be untrustworthy, confused, and more than a little dishonest (evasive, at best). At various times he is a huckster, a victim, possibly a psychopathic mastermind.

We don’t know what to make of Mason a lot of the time, but subtle touches like “The stairs don’t squeak because I know where to step” make him relatable. I’ve never joined a death cult, but, like most teenagers, I learned which steps to avoid when sneaking home late at night.

These are the dark insights that make transgressive fiction so powerful. Pure villains and monsters often lack depth. Anti-heroes can become too cool and charming. But when truly sick and disturbed characters reveal themselves to be all too logical, shit gets uncomfortable.

For me, the gold standard example of this type of line is from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows.”

It’s a moment of familiar comfort followed by a horrific gut-punch. The muscle-memory of footsteps on the stairs reminds us that Mason isn’t well, but he’s not a madman. He’s a logical thinker, as are the others in Thirty-Seven. And that’s what makes this novel so delightfully unsettling.

Full disclosure, Stenson and I were in the same MFA program, but this is a merit-based review (it’s his second novel, and his debut, Fiend, has been translated and published internationally). Many of the elements in this book appeared in his work in the program, and his talent was ever-present. It’s great to see them come together and generate well-earned success.

For fans of transgressive fiction, put this on your summer reading list.

Review: Paperbacks from Hell

The best gift for this Halloween is Grady Hendrix’s glamorously gory Paperbacks from Paperbacks_from_HellHell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, a beautiful homage to the glory days of horror publishing.

Many of you will know Hendrix from his genre-bending novels My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör (a wonderful IKEA-themed nightmare). If you don’t, you should make yourself familiar. His clear love of the genre and dark sense of humor is prevalent in his fiction, but even more so here.

Hendrix guides us through all aspects of horror fiction’s heyday, tracing its roots from the civil unrest of the 1960s and Gothic romances, through the domination of heavy hitters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker, into the eventual over-saturation of the genre.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I remember many of the titles and the experience of browsing through bookstores with actual “horror” sections. Forbidden to buy these extreme books, I ingested them through the cover art and back jacket, imagining what dark delights lived between the covers.

Reading Paperbacks from Hell was like revisiting those bookstores from yesteryear. While Hendrix has much to say about the history and content of these books, Paperbacks is a celebration of cover art and story concept, no matter how ridiculous, from Nazi leprechauns to vengeful insects. It is a coffee table book and artist portfolio all in one.

While Hendrix provides the narrative, his partner in this project is Will Errickson of the Too Much Horror Fiction blog, which revisits vintage scares. It is a labor of love for these two horror nerds, one that would make the 10-year-old me jealous (and the current me exhausted!).

Though he revels in the ever-more ludicrous story plots, Hendrix gives all of the entries fair consideration and validates every sub-genre (with the exception of splatterpunk). Some of the most important sections concern the Satanic Panic, which coincided with the high tide of horror fiction.

Some of my favorite parts are the mini-biographies of the cover artists and the back stories of their work. Though the cover art was sometimes the best part of these books, the artists got short shrift. It’s nice to see them getting recognition. I enjoyed learning about them.

Of course, we know how this story ends, and it is not happily ever after. Hendrix documents the various causes of death of horror publishing: over-saturation of the product; consolidation shuttered the small presses; with the introduction of cable television and VCRs, a large amount of the population just stopped reading.

Hendrix goes further, though, digging into obscure tax law and explaining how the Thor Power Tool case of 1979 changed publishing forever. Interesting stuff, but sad nevertheless.

Unlike those disposable pulps, however, Paperbacks from Hell is a timeless beauty: glossy pages, vivid graphics, embossed printing. This is a gorgeous book, one to keep and display and start awesome dinner-party conversations.

It was an emotional ride. Reading Paperbacks took me back to those early-’80s bookstores, wide-eyed and terrified, absorbing those beautiful and grotesque horror novels I was forbidden to read, but that forever influenced me nonetheless.

Review: On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is the most terrifying thing you’ll read this HalloweenOn_Tyranny (outside of a presidential Twitter feed, that is). This is the book for this moment, and even if you’re not much on politics or nonfiction reading, please set aside the hour it will take to read this book.

That’s not too much to ask for the defense of democracy.

Saving western civilization as we know it is a tall order for such a short book, but for On Tyranny, Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, doesn’t waste space on academic masturbation. He draws lessons from the 20th century for guidance on how to defend democracy in 2017 and beyond. This book is direct, intense, and a call to action.

The result is an instruction manual with 20 tips for fighting back against tyranny, ranging from the minute (“Make eye contact and small talk”), to the macro (“Take responsibility for the face of the world”). But even the most ambitious items on this to-do list come with practical, everyday advice:

“Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. The minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote, making it more or less likely that free and fair elections will be held in the future.”

Lest you think this is a partisan polemic, Snyder does not target parties, but principles. Historically, the enemies of democracy have come from all over the political spectrum. Preventing tyranny requires a multi-party system and a vigilant, informed electorate.

“Any election can be the last,” Snyder writes, “or at least the last in the lifetime of the person casting the vote.”

Other advice includes protecting a free press, being wary of paramilitary groups and coded speech, and actively reading a wide variety of material—preferably on paper, not a screen. After all, interactive screens were tools of oppression in classic dystopian works by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

In particular, beware the mechanisms of terror management. From false flags to opportunistic dictators, real or perceived enemies at the gates have permitted internal threats to flourish. Let the Reichstag fire of 1933 be a lesson, he writes, as it is the blueprint for how would-be tyrants seize unchecked power: When the German parliament caught fire under suspicious circumstances, Hitler used the event to suspend civil liberties on an emergency basis.

Of course, these liberties were not restored once the dubious emergency was over. Liberties, once surrendered, are seldom returned without force.

“For tyrants,” Snyder writes, “the lesson of the Reichstag fire is that one moment of shock enables an eternity of submission.”

Fear is a powerful weapon. Politicians use it to gain power, and the media use it to boost ratings and readership. And fear is what makes our most-cherished institutions vulnerable.

“Courage does not mean not fearing, or not grieving. It does mean recognizing and resisting terror management right away, from the moment of the attack, when it seems most difficult to do so.”

Though the tyrants have their blueprint, Snyder has offered us a brilliant playbook for combating them. The important takeaway for me is that you don’t need to wait for the next election to do something productive. Simply engaging in the world beyond your head or screen (particularly in uncomfortable places) can make a difference.

“Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen,” Snyder writes. We should meet new people, go different places, and generally be present in the three-dimensional world.

And take to heart this bullet point from Snyder—tape it to your front door, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it inside your eyelids:

“We are free only when it is we ourselves who draw the line between when we are seen and when we are not seen.”