Hello friends! It’s springtime, the weather is gorgeous, and I have lucked my way into three consecutive days off, so it felt like a good time for a blog post. Aside from house hunting, the bookstore, teaching, and playing euphonium, here’s what I’ve been up to:
I have a story in the anthology Meet Cute, edited by Kara Landhuis. It’s a collection of illustrations and flash fiction (stories of less than 750 words) about first meetings between characters, romantic or otherwise. My story, “Breakthrough,” is about the first day of preschool and the beginning of a lifelong friendship. My writing hasn’t been in physical print since my college lit mag. Not to disparage the internet or epub in the least, but it’s pretty exciting to have something I can hold in my hands and see on my shelf! The anthology came out in January, and I’ve been so touched by the wonderful response from my friends and family. You are all very wonderful.
I’m still working on draft 6(ish) of my novel. I’d like to give that its own post later, but if you’d like to watch me play silly hashtag games and complain about how difficult revisions are, you can always check out my twitter.
Goodreads is emailing me to let me know I’m behind on my reading challenge, which like, thanks, Goodreads. I don’t need your passive aggressive reminders that I haven’t finished a book in a while. I know.
I have managed to find a few good ones in 2017, though. On vacation back in February I devoured Awoken by Serra Elisen, a loving parody of both the Twilight series and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. If you’re reading this and wondering exactly how those things work together, the answer is hilariously. I was laughing out loud on the beach. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that it was co-written by three authors, one of whom I’m friends with. This mini-review is therefore undoubtedly biased, but Awoken is too entertaining and unique not to share.
My other favorite is Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones. Set in 19th-century Bavaria, it’s the story of nineteen-year-old Liesel, who loves to compose but has to put her ambitions aside to support her family. Her life changes when her sister is kidnapped by Der Erlkönig, the Goblin King, and Liesl offers to take her place as his bride. On her blog, the author delves into her three biggest inspirations for the story- the life of W. A. Mozart, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. For me as a music history and musical theater nerd, the combination was too tempting to pass up.
I’m watching The Magicians, but I took a step back from writing about it here. I just never settled into a time-efficient way of recapping that was still fun to read. I’m still really excited to be a part of this fandom in other ways, though. I’m disappointed with some of the recent plot directions—pregnancy-as-drama early on this season, and this week’s episode had some fridged women—but overall I’m happy that the show was renewed.
About a year ago, I posted a run-down of the books I read in 2015, as well as threeseparateposts detailing my reading plans for 2016. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not the soul of this blog.
That was early January, but since it feels unlikely that I’m going to finish anything tomorrow, I thought I’d get a jump on the reflecting. This year, I made myself a spreadsheet to track my reading (my engineer husband is so proud). I finished 87 books. Of those, 42 were written by people of color, which is a drastic improvement from my mostly-white 2015 reading list. The breakdown of author gender was pretty similar, with about 2/3 female authors and only one non-binary author.
Wiser people write about the issue of diversity in publishing every day, but here’s my two cents: I had a harder time finding new fiction by people with backgrounds different from my own. These books were not always on library or bookstore shelves. Many of the ones I did find were indie or self-published, rather than from a major publishing house. The discrepancy has certainly made me more conscious about where I spend my book-buying dollars.
I read more nonfiction this year- thirteen books total. A good percentage of those were writing books that I read in an effort to improve my own craft, or maybe figure out what genre the book I’m writing is (With some help from friends and books, I’ve settled on calling it paranormal suspense). Reading with a goal in mind helps decrease the feeling that I’m doing pointless homework.
There was less fantasy this year, or maybe it just looks that way because I stopped lumping “paranormal” in with “fantasy.” There were a lot more romances this year—I was craving happy endings, for sure. According to my lovely spreadsheet I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 24,600 pages total, which is a basically meaningless number because of font sizes and different editions and illustrations and such, but still fun to look at.
I’ll be back sometime next week to let you know what to expect from this blog in 2017 (hint: it is mostly books and yelling about The Magicians). In the meantime, here are my favorites from the past twelve months:
Favorite New Series: Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate. I picked up Soulless back when it first came out in 2009. I can’t remember if I was having paranormal burnout or het romance burnout or what, but I didn’t finish it then. I’m so pleased I got it out of the library again. I’ve never purchased a box set that fast.
Favorite Continuing Series: The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. N.K. Jemisin continues to break my heart in new and creative ways.
Favorite Re-Imagined Story: The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I love a good fairy tale retelling. Even though I’ve never read Hale before, this felt like coming home.
Favorite Classic That I Finally Got Around To: Kindred by Octavia Butler. Newer, as “classics” go, but wrenching and still so necessary.
Favorite Comic: I am a little sad to be coming to the end of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, which gets better and better as it goes.
Favorite Surprise Discovery/Debut Author: I’ve already written about how much I found Mishell Baker’s Borderline thanks to a bookstore staff recommendation. It’s a stunning paranormal mystery full of complex characters, fairies, and modern Hollywood intrigue, and I’m so so happy I picked it up.
Favorite Overall:Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the 16th book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Bujold has incredible range as a writer, but this is how I like her best—sci-fi with a twist of family drama, romance, and comedy.
What other excellent and life-changing literature did you experience this year? Tell me in the comments, and have a safe and happy new year.
I get scared easily. You could call me a wimp, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I approach horror movies with extreme caution. If I’m going to watch one, I’ll do it at home, where I can cover my eyes and keep a light on if I need to.
Still, sometimes it’s fun to be a little scared. I’ve never had the same aversion to horror books that I do to horror movies. It’s easier for me to get past spooky stuff on a page than it is on a screen. Besides, when I read a book over the course of several days, it gives me time to get invested in the world and characters in a way I can’t with a two-hour movie. The thrills, when they come, don’t seem so cheap.
When I was a pre-teen, I loved authors who wrote about ghosts and hauntings, like Mary Downing Hahn and Betty Ren Wright. John Bellairs was my #1 favorite for years, although I have to admit I shamefully preferred some of his posthumously published, co-written books to the ones that were all Bellairs. (*whispers* sorry John I still love you if you’re a ghost and you’re reading this let’s hang out).
As I got older and started to read more adult fiction, horror often blended with fantasy. I preferred the paranormal to straight-up thrillers. Still true. That’s partly my general “wizards, aliens, or get out” attitude about fiction and partly self-defense. I can get a satisfying shiver from zombies or vampires, but I’m too much of a skeptic to worry about them after I close the book. Actual human monsters have been known to exist, though, and the feelings those stories inspire aren’t as easy to shake.
I remember being fifteen and reading House of Leaves while I lay in the grass outside my high school, waiting for my mom to pick me up. The sun was shining, but I was completely absorbed in this dark, twisty book about a book about a documentary about a house with hidden secrets and a family coming apart. File this one under “things I am afraid to reread because adult perspectives might crush my happy memories.”
I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, like many horror fans do. I also discovered that I prefer other authors’ pastiches of Lovecraft to the real thing. Neil Gaiman and Caitlín R. Keirnan come to mind. I read enough of the genuine article to understand what the fuss was about, though.
I came to Stephen King relatively recently. I can’t explain my reluctance on this front, except I have a giant hipster mental block that makes me assume I will dislike anything that lots of other people like. I’ve read Pet Semetary, The Shining, and ‘Salem’s Lot all within the last year. They’re all really good, good enough to shut up my hipster brain for a bit.
Being a lightweight horror fan is good in the way being a lightweight drinker is—it takes way less effort to get my fear-buzz on. If you have any good books to recommend, I’ll be over here, with the lights on.
These days I do most of my reading on my Kindle. It’s portable and easy to support when I’m lying on my side in bed (which is where I do a lot of my reading). The only downside is that for convenience’s sake, I wind up giving a lot of my book budget to Amazon. So, in the name of supporting local businesses, I do try to buy something whenever I find myself in an actual bookstore.
Even big box stores like Barnes & Noble won’t always have exactly what I’m looking for, so I feel like it’s best to go in without specific goals. Almost anywhere will order a book for me if it’s not on the shelves, of course, but I find joy in aimless browsing.
I love it when stores have displays that highlight the employee’s favorites. Who better to recommend a book that the people who work in the bookstores? A couple weeks ago a placard caught my eye at the Savoy Bookshop. I don’t recall the name of the staff member, but the novel was Borderline by Mishell Baker. The description seemed to be full of things that I like—urban fantasy, adventure, fairies—so I bought it.
I was and still am immensely pleased with my decision. Borderline isn’t a short book (around 400 pages) but I tore through it in less than two days. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
The story centers on Millie, a former film student and double amputee with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) living in Los Angeles. A year after the suicide attempt that cost Millie her legs, she gets offered a job with the mysterious Arcadia Project. Enticed by the prospect of re-entering the world and possibly the film industry, she accepts.
The Arcadia Project is a pseudo-governmental agency that regulates traffic between the human and fairy worlds. A gate hidden in Los Angeles allows fey creatures to travel to the human world, but there are strict rules about what they can do while they’re here. The fairies in Borderline play to a lot of the same tropes that we’ve come to expect. They’re sensitive to iron, they can’t lie, they’re functionally immortal and can change their appearance at will. Still, most of them move effortlessly in the modern world, moonlighting as movie stars or bartenders without humans catching on.
The plot is twisty, fast-paced, and fun. Millie and her new coworkers are assigned to track down a missing member of the fey nobility, which leads them to a deeper conspiracy involving both fairies and humans. Millie’s narrating voice really shines. She’s self-depreciating but smart, capable in many ways but vulnerable in others. Her disabilities aren’t just set dressing, nor are they treated as blessings in disguise. They’re indelible parts of her life, and they create challenges that need to be considered just as seriously as any supernatural threats.
One of my favorite things was the interaction between Millie and the other members of the Arcadia Project—her enigmatic boss Caryl, her cranky idealistic partner Teo, and her delightfully catty rival Gloria, among others. They come this close to being a heartwarming found family, but the book doesn’t give them quite enough time to get past their own emotional baggage. The opportunity to learn more about the whole cast is one of the reasons I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel scheduled for 2017.
That was my discovery this month. What’s been your best bookstore find recently? Let me know in the comments, and have a great week!
My post on songs that remind me of fantasy novels is here. Like I said, these book-to-song associations have more to do with the workings of my own brain than with actual plot or lyrical content. I know there are dozens of rock songs that directly quote or name drop 1984, but you’ve probably heard of those already. Here are some tunes that remind me of my favorite dystopias and space operas:
Biting the Sun, originally published as the two novellas Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine, is one of my all-time favorite dystopias. In this vision of the future, there are no evil overlords intent on oppressing the human race. Instead, there are just super-helpful robots who are intent on doing everything for us. Bored and disaffected by all the state-sanctioned hedonism, the heroine goes to great lengths to find authenticity in her own life. There is a volcano, actually, but that’s only a warm-up act to the disasters that take place later on, leaving the characters wondering what life after is going to look like.
There’s something a little dystopian about a lot of Lorde’s songs—it seemed really fitting that she has a song on the soundtrack to the Mockingjay movie. “Team” in particular seems to speak to a life lived off the grid, breaking rules and living by your own code. Uglies, like Biting the Sun, imagines a world where humans are provided with every possible luxury and the chance to be inhumanly beautiful. Over the course of the trilogy, the main characters find out that there’s a hidden cost for all of it, and they have to decide if the compromise is worth it.
I spent the summer of 2012 working at summer school, drinking at bars, playing in bands, reading every book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and listening to the albums Aim and Ignite and Some Nights on a constant loop. It makes some sense, then, that I relate the music of the band Fun with the works of author Lois McMaster Bujold. “The Gambler” is one of my favorite tracks for a lot of reasons—the lyrical melody, the surprise French horn solo, and the way a 4-minute song manages to tell the whole history of a family. Bujold’s series is like that, too. Each book stands alone, but the saga taken together tells the story of Miles Vorkosigan and the people caught up in his orbit. The most recent entry, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, is my favorite book of 2016 so far.
I’ve written before about my love for the audiobook of McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer trilogy. The last book, Crystal Line, is the only one I read in print before listening to. It was the winter of 2002, and Alanis Morissette’s “Hands Clean” was all over VH1, my preferred method for experiencing new music, at the time. The lyrics are about a young woman having a secret affair with an older man, rumored to be based on actual events in Morissette’s past. I was thirteen and I hadn’t had a job or a boyfriend yet, let alone a romance with my boss. But Killashandra Ree has exactly that in Crystal Singer. By the third book, that relationship gets swept under the rug thanks to circumstances that I find more chilling as I get older.
That’s my science fiction playlist. Enjoy your week, everyone!
Recently a friend emailed me saying she wanted to try reading something by Neil Gaiman and asked if I had any recommendations. My first reaction was to be gratified that someone had recognized me for a Gaiman superfan and wanted my expert opinion as such. When the glow of flattery wore off, though, I was overwhelmed. There’s so much to choose from. Where to begin?
After a little dithering, I did manage to send a reasonably coherent email back. I’ve adapted it here for Gaiman virgins and veterans alike. He’s written and contributed to works for all ages and across many different genres, so you can stick with what you know or try something completely new.
All Time Favorite: Good Omens (co-authored by Terry Pratchett)
My first encounter with Gaiman’s work was his collaboration with another favorite author of mine, Terry Pratchett. Good Omens is a novel about the Apocalypse, as predicted in The Book of Revelation. Except it’s funny. I’ve given this as a gift many times. I also find opportunities to quote Good Omens in my daily life, thanks in no small part to all the music jokes (If I’ve ever confused you by attributing “Fat Bottomed Girls” to Ralph Vaughn Williams, this is why).
I resent 90% of all short stories, but I love the ones by Neil Gaiman. They are bizarre and haunting, full of familiar characters from fairy tales and classic literature reimagined and made strange. Fragile Things is my personal favorite collection of his but Smoke and Mirrors has many gems as well. If you like those, the novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane maintains the folkloric, dreamy feel of his best stories while being a bit longer.
This series was what got me into American comics, and I’m very pleased it did. The central plot concerns Morpheus, the King of Dreams. But in a universe where everything you dream exists in a parallel reality, anything is possible, and Gaiman thoroughly explores those possibilities. If you’ve been thinking about getting into comics but are daunted by the sheer volume of complex worlds and stories out there, Sandman is a good place to start. Also it’s available at any library with even a small graphic novel selection. I own the 7 1/2 pound hardcover editions and reread at least once a year.
I recommend this to first-time Gaiman readers since it’s fun and stands alone. The main character, Fat Charlie, discovers that his father is the West African trickster god Anansi. It takes place in the same universe as American Gods, which is obviously a masterpiece but it’s very sad and dense and I need to be in the right mood for it. Anansi Boys is, by comparison, a romp.
This has also been a novel and a miniseries, but I think the BBC4 radio adaptation really shines. Starring James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, and a host of other notable voices, it’s a wonderfully creepy portal fantasy about a city beneath a city. Highly recommended if you’re into London and its tube stops.
Middle Grade: Coraline (illustrated by Dave McKean)
Another portal fantasy, on a smaller scale. Coraline is transported to an alternate-universe version of her home, complete with her “Other Mother” and “Other Father.” At first the new world is wonderful, but soon turns sinister and dangerous. It skips the gross-out factor present in lots YA and adult horror, but it’s still delightfully spooky and suspenseful.
I don’t read a lot of picture books these days, but I delighted and terrified some kindergarteners with this once. The illustrations are quirky and complex, with lots of details that kids love to point out and wonder about. It’s also just scary enough to be fun.
Those are my best ones for Neil Gaiman. What do you recommend to people who are curious about your favorite author?
I’m not that good at keeping up with new releases. So many of the books I want to read are already published. Some of them are on my bookshelf. Even if I’m interested in an upcoming book, there’s very rarely one that I need to start reading as soon as it comes out. Most of them can wait.
There are exceptions, of course, usually by my favorite authors. Here are three that I will need to have on my Kindle as soon as humanly possible:
I read my first book by N.K. Jemisin three years ago, and I haven’t shut up about her since. The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth series. The first book, The Fifth Season, was hands-down the best book I read last year. The story takes place on the Stillness, a continent plagued by natural disasters and social unrest. Unlike most of Jemisin’s books, which tend to be self-contained, The Fifth Season ended on a pretty spectacular cliff hanger. I’m so excited to find out what happens next in The Obelisk Gate.
It would be difficult to overstate the influence Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series has had on me. I can trace my love of hyper-competent ladies fighting dead things right back to his books. The Within the borders of the kingdom, the dead don’t always stay dead, and a powerful necromancer called the Abhorsen is on hand to put them back in the ground. If that sounds like your jam, you should check out Sabriel, the first novel in the series, which was published in 1995. If you’ve already visited the Old Kingdom, you’re probably also looking forward to catching up with your favorite characters, seeing as it’s been more than ten years since The Creature in the Case.
Jacqueline Carey has many talents. She moves smoothly between high fantasy and urban fantasy, coming-of-age stories and erotic romance, and everything in between. Her newest project is a re-imagining of The Tempest. Shakespeare’s play focuses on Prospero, a wizard plotting revenge on a remote island. The novel will tell the story of Prospero’s daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about The Tempest (or Shakespeare in general, tbh) but I trust Carey’s ability to recognize and tell an amazing story. Also, how gorgeous is this cover art by Tran Nguyen?
Those three are at the top of my pre-order list right now. What new releases are you looking forward to?
This post is scheduled to go up the day after I get back from my vacation, but right now, I’m still in the planning stages. Tickets are bought and lodgings are booked. My last load of laundry is in the washing machine, and I have picked out the books I’m going to read while I’m away.
I have firm beliefs about vacation reading. Traveling is not the time to challenge myself as a reader. Lounging on a beautiful beach isn’t going to make me suddenly enthused about a book I was avoiding before. I also don’t want anything that’s too dark or emotionally heavy. The stranger next to me on the train doesn’t need to listen to me cry about fictional characters.
My favorite thing to do before a trip is pick up the next book in a series. That way it’s new and exciting, but I know I’m getting into a world I love. Last year on my honeymoon I brought a Bloody Jack (I like to describe these as “Napoleonic Wars but with crossdressing”) and one of Naomi Novick’s Temeraire books (“Napoleonic Wars but with dragons”). Both are longer series that I have been chipping away at for a few years now, neither disappointed.
I have a few other vacation reading staples. Christopher Moore writes smart, funny, irreverent books. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I wanted to give a shout-out to Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, for combining things I loved in first grade (humpbacked whales, Amelia Earhart) with things I love now (weird science fiction stories, dick jokes).
Terry Pratchett is another good traveling companion. A lot of his fantasies riff humorously on real-world scenarios or historical events, but in between the jokes I wind up really caring about the characters. The sheer number of Pratchett books in existence can be daunting, but I generally recommend Going Postal or Monstrous Regimentif you’re a newcomer to the Discworld series. If you’d like something that truly stands alone, Good Omens, a collaboration with Neil Gaiman, is one of my all-time favorites as well.
This trip I’m looking forward to Marked in Flesh, the next Others novel. It only came out a few months ago, but I’m ready for some weird shapeshifter urban fantasy antics, and I don’t have the self-control to wait until this comes out in paperback. Likewise Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which I’ve been avoiding not so much because budget, but because I’m still not over a character death from a previous book. Might not ever be over it, honestly. But I do want to see what Cordelia is up to.
What are your favorite books to read on vacation? My list obviously slants towards sci-fi/fantasy, but so does the rest of my reading. I’m all ears if you have recommendations. We’re already planning next year’s adventure.
Congratulations, everyone, we made it halfway through the year! It hasn’t been easy. The news has not been good. But here you are, six months in, still kicking, still making it work. Nice job. I’m proud of you.
It seems like a good time to check back in with the reading resolutions I set for myself in January. So far I’ve finished 41 books. I have a spreadsheet, you guys.
Books by Authors of Color
My goal is to read at least 35 books by authors of color this year, and so far I’ve finished 23. This is already a huge upswing in diversity from 2015, when I only finished 10. I had some reservations about the wording of this resolution, which I go into in my original post. But overall I think it’s been a good exercise for me. If nothing else, it’s encouraged me to check out authors I haven’t read before, like Octavia Butler and Daniel José Older.
I have read as few as four or as many as seven nonfiction books. I was aiming for five, so okay, but why the discrepancy? Well, I didn’t really think this one through as well as I should have. I didn’t really have poetry in mind at first, but if you want to get technical, it is shelved in nonfiction. Then there’s the issue of books The Water is Wide, which walk a thin line between memoir and novel.
Of the four incontrovertibly, uncontestably nonfiction books I have read, two were about writing craft and two were about feminism. Make of that what you will.
Authors with Different Gender Identities
I was getting a little weary of goal setting by the time I came to gender. I read about an equal number of male and female authors last year, but to my knowledge no trans or non-binary authors. The very low bar I set for myself was a vague sort of “I can do better” statement.
And I’ve done…better, I guess, if you count one book. One in Every Crowd by Ivan E. Coyote is another semi-fictionalized memoir, geared towards a young adult audience. It deals with the narrator/author’s own experience growing up as a gender nonconformist in rural Canada, as well as their adult experiences mentoring queer youth.
Look, I don’t cry a lot. If I type “this made me cry” in a text or a tweet or a blog post, you can read it as “this made me emotional and maybe my eyes watered a little.” But while I was reading One in Every Crowd there were big, wet, I-need-to-stop-and-get-a-tissue-before-I-short-out-my-Kindle tears running down my face. Five stars, highly recommend.
Most of the authors I’ve read are American, with a handful from the UK and a very small number from anywhere else. My most-read genre is sci-fi (11 books) closely followed by fantasy (10 books). Overwhelmingly I read ebooks rather than any other format, although I did have a few audiobooks and paperbacks as well.
So that’s where I’m at as of July 1. I’ll check back in around December and let you know how I did.
A few days ago I found a Kickstarter for a film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Lullaby. Or rather, I got a direct message from whoever runs Palahniuk’s Twitter (it’s not him) pointing it out to me, in case I wanted to contribute any money to getting the movie made.
I showed it to my husband. Palahniuk was one of our first shared literary interests when we started dating. We still have duplicate copies of several of his books on our shelves, relics of a pre-cohabiting, pre-Kindle era.
Even though we’re arguably fans, we laughed a little over some of the backer rewards for the Lullaby movie. $15 for a PDF of the shooting script is one thing. But for $500, you can have a leather-bound, signed, limited edition copy of one of one of Chuck’s books. For a little more, you can get a tattoo of the movie’s logo. For two grand, you can be in the movie.
“Didn’t they used to pay people to be in movies?” I asked. “Not the other way around?”
Making fun of the Kickstarter was not classy of me, I’ll admit. Movies are expensive. If fans are willing to put that kind of capital into getting a thing made, they should have something to show for it. I should not mock people for spending money on things that bring them joy.
But I personally am not going to fork over $20k so I can own the prop grimoire from the movie.
Palahniuk’s best-known work is still his 1996 novel Fight Club. By the time I hit puberty, the 1999 film adaptation was on its way to cult classic status. I can’t shake the sad feeling that this, his first published novel, was also the height of Palahniuk’s fame. Fight Club and it’s rules are a part of the cultural lexicon in the way that none of his other books ever were.
When I was in high school, I got into Palahniuk because that’s what all the cool kids were reading. Maybe not the class president, captain-of-the-sports-team cool kids, but the nerdy, witty, acerbic types. These were the people who started bands and wrote poetry and stayed up to see the sunrise. They pushed boundaries and broke rules, or at least it felt that way to me. They were the ones I wanted to be around and be like.
We worshipped these books wholeheartedly. Palahniuk’s words made their way into our yearbook quotes, and we joined MySpace groups called “Chuck Palahniuk for President.” For my junior year science fair project, two friends and I researched all the anarchic chemistry proposed in Fight Club. We didn’t actually attempt to drill holes in a gun barrel or make napalm out of orange juice, but we did make soap. We used grocery store-bought lard that did not come from humans, as far as we knew, anyways.
There’s a sense now that Palahniuk was something we were supposed to give up after a while. The bizarre, gross details that pepper his books, the inevitable plot twists—it could get gimmicky, overly theatrical. Adolescent boy stuff. We were meant to grow out of loving this.
Confession time: I never actually did.
I couldn’t get through Haunted. It wasn’t just the infamous opening story “Guts;” it was the rumors of auto-cannibalism later, and my fear that something bad was going to happen to the cat in the frame story (no one tell me what happens to the cat, I don’t want to know). I stopped reading his new releases after Pygmy. I probably should have quit after Snuff. The porn industry has its problems, but I’m not sure Palahniuk was meant to tackle them. Pygmy was further out of his experience. It read like a bad episode of South Park, a poorly drawn satire that has transformed into the very thing it meant to skewer.
But everything that came before…
Lullaby, the book that is being kickstarted into a movie, is heartbreaking. It’s about a mysterious poem that’s really a spell. Saying it aloud or even just thinking it kills people. Lullaby is also about families, both biological and found. It’s about guilt and grief and how easy it is to do harm, even when all you want to do is help. There’s also a necrophiliac coroner and a real estate agent trying to sell haunted houses. Someone gets gum in their hair, or maybe it’s boogers.
Palahniuk has written some of the most memorable things about boogers I’ve ever read. The only other author who’s come close is Charles Dickens. Both the phrase “pendulous excrescence” and the nose picking in Rant will haunt me to my grave, so thanks for that, Chuck(s).
Invisible Monsters was a personal favorite, reread many times. The events that kick the story off are horrific—the main character has lost most of her jaw to a gunshot wound—but it somehow manages to evolve into a hopeful, chaotic road trip story. It asks how much we sacrifice when we obediently fill the roles others have chosen for us rather than following our own passions. “Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there,” the narrator urges.
There were others, too. Diary, with it’s creepy parody of both art school and small-town living, is my husband’s favorite. I’m least-fond of the protagonist in Survivor, but it’s absolutely worth a read for the counterpoint structure alone. I consider Choke to be the worst-of-the-best, but it’s surprisingly charming for a book about an amoral conman who’s addicted to sex.
These books got into me in a very real way and never left again. They colored the way I looked at the world. The stories are full of ordinary things transformed into fateful objects. IKEA catalogues, birth control pills, suicide hotline stickers, Easter eggs. The cap of a restaurant ketchup bottle, a letter opener, an email password. After you finish one of Palahniuk’s books, it’s like you’ll never feel the same about these things again.
Maybe this is nostalgia talking. I’ve that most people will like the music they liked at age 13 for the rest of their life. They might not listen to it on a regular basis, but when one of those songs comes on, they won’t change the radio station. Palahniuk is literary equivalent to that, at least a little bit.
If the amount of money the Kickstarter has raised is any indication, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I still believe there was something valuable in those books, though. Hidden beneath the shock value exterior was truth and beauty. Many of them have happy endings. Our younger selves might have pretended to be cynics, but it turns out we were romantics all along.