Category Archives: literary

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, read by Keven Kernerly

Lovecraft Country

Here’s how we came to listen to Lovecraft Country. After approximately 20 attempts of going to the movies with friends collapsed in last-minute mishaps, Kaitlyn and I watched Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele. Get Out was and is our favorite film of 2017– Peele weaves the classic tropes of horror films together to show the endurance and adaptation of racism in America today. Get Out has been a critical and box office break-out success, and HBO spent little time hiring Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions to make a series adapted from Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016). So, driving through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta and cruelly deprived of access to Game of Thrones while camping, Kaitlyn and I decided to listen to the book that will no doubt be our favorite tv show one day soon.

Lovecraft Country is a novel composed of episodic chapters that follow different members of two African American families living in Chicago during the 50s. When Montrose, the father of Atticus, disappears into a notorious sundown town of rural Massachusetts, Atticus, his Uncle (the publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide) and a friend, Leticia, embark on a journey to find and save Montrose. They confront the horrors of 1950s Jim Crow and Northern racism, but these horrors blend seamlessly with supernatural horrors that pay homage to the sci-fi stories Atticus, George and Leticia devour in their spare time. The episodes cover a lot of ground; the sinister manor stories (like Get Out), space-travel, haunted houses, creepy doll stuff, transformations, and witchcraft. But in every richly imagined story, it’s the banal violence Jim Crow that cements itself as the most pervasive and dangerous.

Kaitlyn writes that “at first I wasn’t sure about the style of episodic stories, but it worked. It really worked.”

As I am writing this NPR is describing the violent clash of white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. As both Get Out and Lovecraft Country show, the horror of Jim Crow and racism are the stuff of nightmares, and nightmares alive today.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

This is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in a long time. It takes place on one night in February 1862: the night President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, was laid to rest in a DC cemetery after a speedy illness. The book is narrated by a chorus of voices: historians excerpted in their works about the Lincoln presidency (at least some of which were real), contemporary journalists and letter-writers, and most notably, ghosts who don’t know they are dead and doomed to remain in the cemetery.

These ghosts welcome young Willie into their midst and are agog when President Lincoln returns to the cemetery to be with his beloved son. The reader gains a slow understanding of the dynamics of this realm, the bardo — how the ghosts are punished and by whom, how they might seek redemption, and what and whom are waiting for them to depart.

The book is at times grotesque and mordantly funny. Yet it was deeply moving and a powerful evocation of the desperate love between a parent and child. I barreled through this book and couldn’t put it down. As the book concluded I was hugely impressed with what Saunders has accomplished, including the deft way he wove his novel into Lincoln’s history, with a subtle suggestion about how this one night might have affected the president long after he departed the cemetery.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold BloodIt feels like there are few books anymore that “most people” seem to have read, but when I was asking around for recommendations, this one kept getting mentioned. On the surface, the subject (the senseless murder of the Clutter family in Kansas family in 1959) didn’t appeal to me, but there’s no gratuitous violence in the book, and the author’s voice throughout was somehow reassuring in its authority. The book felt well rounded, introducing us to the family and their community and also following the fortunes of the two perpetrators, who display odd flashes of vulnerability and compassion along with their reckless disregard for human life. It felt much more like a well made black and white movie than, say, an Investigation Discovery show, and it conveyed a vivid sense of the time and place.

Availability:  SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Rating: Highly Recommended

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris

The Dinner Party

I have always greatly enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s writing: it’s clean, lucid, and reflective of a life that was familiar to me: the travails of the creative/professional class (and those who love them) in contemporary New York. This collection of stories seems drawn from disparate points along Ferris’s evolution as a writer. My least favorite story seemed like it had been written for a creative writing class a long time ago; my favorite story (“The Dinner Party”) amazed me when I first read it in the New Yorker years ago and, happily, it still held up on re-reading.

Ferris writes about men behaving badly, men who are careless and blind to their own selfishness. As I read these stories it struck me that he was writing about a very narrow slice of life experience, and I missed the breadth that he’s demonstrated in his novels. However, I enjoyed these stories (some more than others), and Ferris remains one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating:  Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

The Book of Ruth, by Jane Hamilton

The Book of RuthWhat stood out to me about The Book of Ruth is the protagonist’s distinct, down-to earth voice. Ruth is introspective and reflects on how gender affects her daily life in the country. The novel captures many feelings and thoughts that I found to be empathetic and relatable to anyone: childhood crushes, adjusting to high school, and questioning the meaning of individuality.

I enjoyed how there were several representations of women and feminism in the book, and how they related to each other. I could see a parallel between Ruth versus Daisy, for example, in their independence and actions. In some ways, the two friends foil each other: Daisy is outgoing and enjoys wearing bright, somewhat revealing clothing, while Ruth is reserved and modest, for instance. However, the two support each other despite their differences, as well as others. The women that Ruth meets are mentors and teachers, whom she learns from during her childhood to adulthood.

I consider the format of the novel could be thought of a kind of everyday epic, because of the span of time the story takes on, through school days, graduation, weddings, and motherhood.

Although the novel is adapted from Ruth from the Bible, I found that the novel is its own entity. While reading the novel, I felt that the story itself was original and could stand on its own. In other words, even without the context of what the novel is based on, the novel is still enjoyable.

I found the novel to be bittersweet: As Ruth gets older, her wants and hopes for life are the same, but life ends up bringing something unexpected.

Availability: COSMOS
Review submitted by: Julia Thompson
Rating: Highly Recommended

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

This début novel really knocked my socks off. The novel is composed of interlocking stories of two branches of a shared family tree. Two half-siblings are born on the Gold Coast of Africa in the 1700s; one child and her descendants will remain in Africa (for the most part), while the other child is enslaved and sent to North America. The chapters alternate between strands of the family tree as the generations march forward, children becoming parents, lives blossoming or curdling, as personal journeys inevitably crash into the historical forces around them.

The book challenges the reader to consider about the durability and mystery of family ties, as well as the concepts of inherited trauma and institutional racism. The author deftly shows how certain themes, symbols, and objects echo through the generations and across family lines, as the novel is firmly grounded in a sense of place. All of the characters look back to the same place of origin; they live and die under the same sun, they cool themselves in the same waters.

Read earlier reviews of Homegoing on the summer reading blog.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Michael Dunn
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book from the 2017 Tournament of Books

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm

I devoured this short novel (or “a fairy story,” as described in the subtitle) on a recent Saturday. Without knowing too much about the allegorical elements of the Russian Revolution, this book is a bracing read about power and authority run amok. The unbearable tension rises from the setting of a bucolic farm populated by sentient, communicative animals (like your favorite Disney film) and its subject matter. To see a totalitarian regime emerge in this setting — to see tyrants amassing power and wealth at the expense of other, less sophisticated denizens — struck a chord in this current moment. Orwell charges the reader with the sense of injustice and unfairness of it all (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”). This time around, I also thought a lot about the use of power and how that power is explained to others. What an incredible book.

Availability: USMAI, SMCM, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Michael Dunn
Rating: Must Read