I had reached a dead end reading long novels and bios about writers. I was going to take a break from reading, but browsed our shelves on a Friday afternoon hoping to find a new book that was fairly short and I found it right in the section that I shepherd: Biographies. It was new and by a poet that I never heard of. But the title drew me in, Studying with Miss Bishop by Dana Gioia with a picture of Elizabeth Bishop on the cover. I devoured it over the weekend. It was pure gold.
It contains 6 vignettes about his learning. Four were famous writers, one was a dead uncle, and the last was a long forgotten poet that he never met. Two of the writers were also his professors at Harvard – Bishop and Robert Fitzgerald, famous for his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. It is like taking the juiciest parts of a full load of college classes.
The most famous writer he met was James Dickey, his book Deliverance and then the movie made him extremely well known. He had been a great poet up until his fame took over. Meeting Dickey should have been a great thing except Gioia met him at the wrong time. And he learns that telling the truth is sometimes the hardest decision to make and live up to.
The writer that I was least familiar with was John Cheever. Although, he don’t interest me, I went back and reread his daughter Susan’s bio on one of my favorite poets, E.E. Cummings: A Life.
Gioia is a poet also, and definitely a poet I wish to explore more.
So this also led me back to reading poetry. And I found my way back to one of my favorite poets who is a much overlooked poet, Jim Carroll. I decided to reread his memoirs, The Basketball Diaries, because the last line of the book, “I just want to be pure,” kept floating in my head repeatedly.
I read it about 30 years ago and loved it. At 58, I read it with much different eyes. I was more distanced to it because of mucho personal experience. In my 20’s, he sounded like a punk and smart aleck. Today, it sounds like the purest writing that I have ever read. No wasted words or pretense.
Carroll was 13 when the Diary begins and 16 at the end. In between he discovers drugs and sex, and a lot of both. He experiments with everything and becomes a heroin junkie. He is a star basketball player and good looking, and that is enough to get him through many struggles and into a lot of potential trouble.
There were probably many boring days in the life of a junkie but this doesn’t include any of them. Along the way, I went back and read a bit of The Catcher in the Rye (a must read). Teenage Carroll can be seen as the Vietnam Era’s version of the postwar Holden Caulfield, in proportion to the way America has progressed with the uglier things in life.
Also, I finally got around to reading a book on my TBR shelf, The Adding Machine by William S. Burroughs (who – among other things) taught Creative Writing at the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado). It is a collection of essays roughly about the art of writing. Basically, what works for him, and what works or doesn’t work for other writers. Also, his thoughts on Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, and Jaws.
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the smartest man in America. I believe this to be true. Kerouac was my first favorite writer and probably still is. It has been almost 30 years since I read some of his books, so onward to explore them as an old man.
“Leah fell asleep outside the night after her brother disappeared, outside to get away from the sounds inside, and she saw two little girls in brilliant calico dresses walk from the garage and climb up the maple tree. They didn’t come down, not that she saw. The night was silent. The stars were silent. The grass was silent. The world was empty.” – Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
Once in a while you come across a wild, profound, terrifying, beautiful book that reminds you of the ways in which literature is such a beautiful art form. Then, sometimes, you look up the author and find that once upon a time they dropped a book like this and it’s also their only work to date, which makes the mind reel. Did creating this story with its intricate narrative consume all the literary energy they had to give? Was it the work of years, and maybe they’re crafting another such book right now? Or did they just wake up one day with an idea for a completely devastating novel, release it into the world, and decide they were done? David Connerly Nahm wrote his only full-length novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky in 2014, and he has a minimal online presence excepting an interview or podcast guest spot, a rarity in the social media age. This was a disappointment to me only in the sense that it didn’t take long into my reading to realize this novel was a work of art, and once I’d finished the rollercoaster of dramatic intrigue stretching through the course of Ancient Oceans, I immediately wanted another ride.
Nahm employs suspense incredibly well to keep readers hooked throughout a very poetic novel that, lacking sufficient levels of ghostly intrigue, may have gone over a lot of peoples’ heads. (Honestly, if you prefer a straight-to-the-point storytelling style with no additional commentary or complex themes, this still might not be the book for you.) But Nahm knits together a stream of consciousness style and third person perspective in his book that creates an eerie, almost out-of-body narrative voice to tell the story of Leah, a woman whose entire life as it exists in the present of the book was defined by a traumatic event in her childhood, the disappearance of her little brother Jacob. It is through Leah’s perspective that we’re shown the rural Kentucky town of Crow Station (heavily influenced by Danville, Kentucky) and the people who live there, many of whom Leah has known her entire life. This cast of personalities fills out Crow Station’s tableau of those who, in the course of the book’s two acts, live, alternately carve out joy or succumb to cruelty, struggle for survival financially and philosophically and leave their mark on the ever-shrinking pocket of Kentucky in which they are fated to live and die and leave behind their stories to haunt generations to come, and even the land itself.
A deep understanding of folkloric themes is obvious in Nahm’s narrative as he employs both the suspense of gradually uncovering the truth of Jacob’s loss and elements of ghost stories throughout the book to engage readers and to suggest the possibility of the supernatural as a running theme. From Leah’s childhood remembrances of local ghost stories to the way the actions of one generation can define not just their life but linger in the experiences of their children, heritage and memory are explored by Nahm as he gradually strips away layers of forgotten or misremembered events in the rural, underfunded and fading town to bring some of the threads of the plot to light, while raising even more questions about others.
Ancients Oceans parallels ghost stories – and specifically, regionally, the concept of haints – with themes of being haunted by the past, the choices and events that constitute a life. As the novel progresses, early references to random snapshots of events that initially felt poetic in purpose are revealed as moments in the lives of the orbiting side characters. And throughout, courtesy of the guilty memories of a very unreliable narrator, readers find themselves trying to solve the unsolved mystery of what really happened to seven-year-old Jacob Shepherd, but also, in what form and for what purpose has he perhaps returned?
Nahm drew from his own life experiences for his portrayal of rural Kentucky, as well as different scenes and snippets of dialogue throughout the book. In an interview leading up to its release he said “While I remember myself as a kind older brother—though maybe a touch dictatorial—to this day I am sometimes filled with an ill-feeling when I abruptly remember some long past misdeed: A time I wrestled my brother and hurt him on purpose because I was mad or when I failed to stand up for my sisters when they were teased in a playground. It is this inability to let these things go that informed Leah and Jacob’s relationship—or, more accurately, her memory of their relationship.” These added layers make the novel deeply personal and honestly, more than a little vulnerable in a way that I as a reader physically sensed. As an older sister who, being a child herself, occasionally picked at her younger sibling and resented being followed around, Leah’s guilty memories of her childhood relationship with her brother – including her occasional bullying – definitely stung. Readers are often presented with unflattering anecdotes of ways she was unkind to him prior to his disappearance, what some would call typical sibling behavior that became magnified in her memory once he was gone. In a climactic scene, Leah, the quintessential unreliable narrator, discloses a new and crucial piece of information to readers who have spent the last couple of hundred pages learning every detail about her life and may have assumed that, having been inside her mind, there was nothing left for her to hide.
The unavoidable point of tension and confrontation in that scene and an ending that can be interpreted any number of ways almost require the reader to sit in judgment on Leah and decide whether or not to absolve her of her childhood sins. I personally found myself poring over different aspects of Leah’s story and I still have no concrete answers, but while I’m sure Nahm knows the truth of what was factual or imagined in his narrative, the potential for conversation and dissection of the events of the story make this the perfect book club book, in my opinion. I could discuss it for ages, and unfortunately for the people in my life who don’t enjoy speculative fiction, I will most likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
I would recommend Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky to fans of Kentucky authors, Southern Gothic themes, family-centric dramas, and books you’re still thinking about in the car on the way to work the next day.
The extraordinary true story of Odette Sansom, the British spy who operated in occupied France and fell in love with her commanding officer during World War II–perfect for fans of Unbroken, The Boys in the Boat, and Code Girls
It is 1953. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the first factory to open near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a prominent Chippewa Council member, trying to understand a new bill that is soon to be put before Congress. The US Government calls it an ’emancipation’ bill; but it isn’t about freedom – it threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land, their very identity. How can he fight this betrayal? Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Pixie – ‘Patrice’ – Paranteau has no desire to wear herself down on a husband and kids. She works at the factory, earning barely enough to support her mother and brother, let alone her alcoholic father who sometimes returns home to bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to get if she’s ever going to get to Minnesota to find her missing sister Vera. In The Night Watchman multi-award winning author Louise Erdrich weaves together a story of past and future generations, of preservation and progress. She grapples with the worst and best impulses of human nature, illuminating the loves and lives, desires and ambitions of her characters with compassion, wit and intelligence.
The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books since I first read it as a high school junior sitting in a classroom in the same town Daisy and Jordan grow up in. Heck, I even had my senior prom at the hotel where Daisy gets married in the book. After reading Gatsby I wanted more about Daisy I wanted her backstory. And ever since The Great Gatsby ended up in the public domain last year I’ve been looking forward to Gatsby retellings that didn’t fall flat, like the first two that I read. However, Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor was everything I wanted in a Gatsby retelling including the title being taken from my favorite line in the book. She gave me not only Daisy’s backstory but Jordan’s as well and in the process turned it into a mystery. Through the pages of Beautiful Little Fools, you see not only 1920s New York but WWI-era Louisville.
Beautiful Little Fools gives the reader the story before Gatsby, Gatsby as seen from the women of the novel and what happens after Gatsby. Cantor made Beautiful Little Fools a mystery giving you the point of view detective working the case. Cantor writes Detective Frank Charles as the way I imagined a 1920s police detective to be. The author gives readers this wonderful retelling and doesn’t take away from the source material nor try to make any changes to Fitzgerald‘s characters. If one isn’t familiar with the original story the reader can still enjoy Beautiful Little Fools as its novel, however, you will be spoiled for the ending of The Great Gatsby don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For the past couple years, more and more books have been getting published that feature climate change as a core aspect of the plot, so much so that “climate fiction” or “cli-fi” is recognized as a genre. When I first started reading cli-fi, it definitely felt more real than my usual space opera fare, but still something in the distance, not an immediate possibility. I’m not sure if something changed, but Sim Kern’sDepart, Depart! felt so real I found myself wanting to Google news coverage of the hurricane in Texas that left the main character, Noah, a climate refugee.
Noah barely escapes the flood and finds himself in a shelter in the Dallas Maverick’s basketball arena, crammed in with countless others having the worst days of their lives. Noah is able to build a community there, but he has to make hard decisions about what might have to be sacrificed in order to survive. He remembers hearing stories of his Grandfather, who escaped the Holocaust only by making similar sacrifices, and wonders how much he should let his ancestor guide him.Depart, Depart!explores intersections of climate change and class, race, and gender, and finding community after feeling like everything you know has been washed away.
A quick and timely read, LFPL only has this novella available as an ebook, linked directly here.
View Sim Kern’s full list of published works on their website, here.
This is my ultimate favorite read for the entirety of 2021. And a lot of great books debuted in 2021.
The Final Girl Support Group explores a world in which the events in our most famous slasher films really took place before being optioned for media production. The survivors of several bloody massacres – the titular “final girls”, per the movie trope of one lone girl surviving a horror story – are left to find their way in a world where everyone knows what they lived through, and though many consider them a strange kind of celebrity, others would just as soon see their killers finish them off. Some of these girls, now women, have managed to capitalize on their fame and dictate the terms of their own lives years after the slaughters they all lived through, owning their strength. Others are barely hanging on, destructive coping mechanisms and constant fear haunting their every step.
Lynnette Tarkington is in the latter group. She lives like a ghost, as off-the-grid as possible, her apartment transformed into a panic room and with only two personal attachments: her houseplant Fine – short for “Final Plant” – and a ragtag therapy group made up of other final girls and the psychiatrist who assembled them all, Dr. Carol. The members are fierce and bitter survivors as likely to devolve into low-blow verbal warfare as to help each other actually heal. They’re in no shape to band together when the heart of their group, Adrienne King, is suddenly found murdered. Like falling dominos, outside threats in the form of leaked secrets, misinformation, and physical attacks begin to target each member of the group at once, stalking and isolating them. Lynnette finds herself fighting to survive once more as she is left to untangle the web of a psychotic mastermind, with few resources and fading credibility in the eyes of the public and the other final girls. Every contingency plan she’s made may not be enough to save her from a bloody fate this time.
Grady Hendrix’s stories are unique, twisted, highly energetic works anchored by characters who have what two-dimensional horror flick protagonists typically lack: emotional depth that grips the reader and renders them unable to put down the books and abandon the characters, because the only thing scarier than what’s stalking them in the dark is the thought of not knowing how it all ends. Within a week of finishing this book I was lucky enough to get my hands on and finish all of his other novels, and I’m now a diehard fan. I don’t normally go in for horror novels and can’t watch scary movies at all, but the premise of The Final Girl Support Group was just self-aware and campy enough that it seriously intrigued me. I won’t lie, there were moments and a handful of scenes throughout that I did find disturbing and scary (so horror-intolerants, beware…) because Hendrix is very good at his genre. But in the end the plot had the addictive elements of a fast-paced thriller and hooked me so hard I had to see it through. In my opinion sleeping with the hallway lights on for a couple of nights was more than worth an incredible story.
I knew that if Hendrix was really faithful to major horror tropes, certain character archetypes nodded to in the story (the single Black character in a group, the one gay character, the prima donna, the jock, the junkie, etc.) were likely doomed to meet a bad and/or gratuitous end, and to some extent he does play off some of those clichés. But he also uses each character’s varied circumstances to explore different themes about death so that for the characters who are killed, it’s the start of their conversation in several ways, not the end, because he puts in the work to flesh out each and every one far beyond the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs slasher flicks often reduce characters to. When someone dies, in what ways do they live on? Is the strength of one’s legacy enough to triumph over death from beyond the grave? Which is preferable, a sudden, violent death or a slow and wasting one at the natural end of a life, and is there really a difference in the level of horror each invokes?
I wouldn’t host one book discussion group about this novel: I’d have to host a series of them to have enough time to discuss the nuances Hendrix gets down to his elbows in, even places where he could just as easily have left details unexplored or played them off as a gimmick. But this author is an artist when it comes to literary examination of the human experience: it would be obvious in any genre he chose as his canvas, but in my opinion we’re lucky he happens to prefer such a clever and fun one.
Speaking of which, and without revealing any spoilers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character in the entire thing, Dani. It’s rare as a queer reader that I encounter portrayals of butch women at all, let alone one that grabbed my heart like Dani, a member of the group who survived a Friday the 13th-style gauntlet of attacks and is just as much, if not more, of a badass as Lynnette. Lynnette mentions in her analysis of Dani that she already knew she was a lesbian when she experienced her attacks, and in a world that often judges LGBTQIA+ kids as inherently sexual and therefore no longer an innocent child, within a genre where only “innocent” girls who follow the rules and remain “pure” in contrast to their peers’ social behaviors tend to survive to the end of the story, I appreciated that little slice of acknowledgement of queer teens’ worth. The novel doesn’t spare Dani’s trauma: it explores every character’s nuances as their pasts are dug up and used to torment them one by one. But it also gives us a glimpse into this fascinating queer character who we see secondhand through Lynnette as a protector of her friends, a relentless warrior, and a clever and wise soul who loves so hard it nearly consumes her. I’ll be honest, I definitely have a crush on this character.
In my opinion, Lynnette is the perfect narrator for this kind of emotionally driven story – if any of the other “final girls” had been the focus, it would have been a very different story of a few days’ events, likely with a radically different conclusion. Lynnette’s decisions are all informed by fear, and from a first-person POV a reader can’t help but get excited and anxious along with her (which may make this book off-putting to readers who don’t like to get sucked into emotion that intense). Lynnette’s adrenaline is always kicked into high gear, focused on survival at every moment. She feels everything acutely, not just panic and suspicion but affection that borders on codependency; grief that almost swallows her up in despair; curiosity that nearly – literally – kills; and anger that powers her through moments where others might succumb.
The same excessive survival instincts that protect Lynnette also blind her in certain ways: readers may pick up on several details she misses, who she should or shouldn’t trust and even whether she’s chasing red herrings at times. Lynnette is incapable of pausing to examine situations without some level of bias (possibly a nod from the author to ways in which it’s been proven that PTSD, intense anxiety and other stressors can impact one’s brain over lengthy periods of time.) It personally pulled me into the mental space of watching a slasher movie, yelling at the characters on the screen (as if they can hear you) not to go into a dark basement, or to watch out behind them for a hidden killer, which in context of this genre was artfully done.
A breakout star in horror, Hendrix has already had several of his most popular works optioned for television with star-studded production teams. I was thrilled to learn that Charlize Theron will be an executive producer on The Final Girl Support GroupTV series, since her portfolio of roles featuring battle-hardened women who have lived through various traumas and bashed their way out the other side had me picturing her as Lynnette in my mind throughout the book. Theron will bring a valuable perspective to the project and help it to fully realize its potential, having been inside the minds of multiple characters who could be profiled alongside this book’s blood-soaked heroines. I highly recommend plowing through as many of Hendrix’s novels as possible before the TV content starts dropping, because it’s all going to be extremely worth it to skip the library waiting list when every horror-tolerant person you know starts devouring this and Hendrix’s other works. I personally am glad to have found this powerful book now, both for the experience of a deeply impactful story…and so that when I sit down to watch the series through my fingers, I know exactly where to close my eyes.
The Final Girl Support Group falls in a niche where not every horror fan may find it terrifying enough to suit them and not every reader of tongue-in-cheek genre parody will find it cerebral or humorous enough. I’m personally unfamiliar with many other works that bring emotion and wit to horror the way this one does, except Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart Is a Chainsaw – another clever, self-aware horror novel from this past summer – and of course Grady Hendrix’s other works. I would certainly recommend The Final Girl Support Group to fans of Charlize Theron films like The Old Guard and Mad Max: Fury Road where warrior women have marked character growth and autonomy amid a backdrop of over the top action and violence. If you enjoyed shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and aren’t put off by slasher movie-level gore, or films such as the Alien franchise (but with the ability to laugh at their own genre), I highly recommend making this your first 2022 read.
A reimagining of the Book of Exodus, told from an African-American perspective.
Hurston, having travelled the American South and the Caribbean as an anthropologist, uses the knowledge gained by those experiences to recast the Book of Exodus from a black American perspective. Moses, long a hero of black folklore and song is now the black hero of the Exodus story, the emancipator of slaves. The plagues, the signs, the mighty works are fruits of his righteousness but also his knowledge of hoodoo. And freeing the slaves was just the first of his tasks, for he then has to form them into a new nation, give them a new identity, and free them from a slave mindset.
Beyond providing a deeper understanding of Exodus, Hurston challenges the reader to examine their own role in society. For if the Hebrews are to be associated with the black American slaves, then white Americans, largely Christian and so used to identifying with the Hebrews themselves, must realize they have more in common with the Egyptians. Moreover, the book was published in 1939 amidst Jewish persecution in Europe, drawing an obvious parallel between Pharoah and Hitler.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley was a book I picked up because of the title and back cover blurb. Titular character Patrick or Gup (“Gay Uncle Patrick” for short) finds himself the temporary guardian of his niece and nephew after they lose their mother. What follows is an adventure as the three of them tackle their new normal and Patrick tries to figure out parenthood. This book will have you laughing and crying along with Maisie, Grant, and Patrick.
I listened to the audiobook which is read by the author and only adds to the book as you are hearing the words the way the author wanted them to be heard. We get to hear Maisie’s developing attitude and Grant’s lisp, as well as Patrick’s changing tone and nuances. I kept finding reasons to listen to the audiobook because I wanted to know what was going to happen next.
I especially wanted to know how Maisie and Grant – at eight and six – were handling losing their mom because at twenty-eight and nineteen my sister and I were a mess when it happened to us. Like Maisie and Grant, we also had a Guncle, who despite his own doubts and grief stepped in to help, making the book personal. I think The Guncle wrapped up nicely but still leaves room for a sequel or even a companion novel.
I highly recommend the audio version but if you don’t like audiobooks I do recommend reading the book. There’s something for everyone in The Guncle and now I’m going to dive into Rowley’s backlist.