I bought so many books this month, you guys. I’m in a zone right now where when I go into our home office and stare down my to-be-read pile (pile=several stacks all over the floor by the base of the wall-to-wall bookcases), I’m genuinely having trouble deciding what to pick up next. Thank goodness summer is coming, because I have a lot to knock out over the next few months, but for now, here’s what I got through in May:
1) Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer: This is a thinking book, with history and true crime added for good measure. Written shortly after 9/11, it examines a sect of Mormonism so fundamentalist that two men obeyed what they believed to be orders from God to kill a young woman and her baby.
A big part of the point is clearly this: every religion, even the most American, home-grown, wholesome incarnation, has fundamentalists who twist and pervert its teachings into something the vast majority does not accept or condone. To me, even more interesting was the discussion of whether or not an insanity defense should be available to religious zealots. Krakauer writes:
“If Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well? In a democratic republic that aspires to protect religious freedom, who should have the right to declare that one person’s irrational beliefs are legitimate and commendable, when another person’s are crazy?” (pg. 297)
Religion is such a hot button issue that I think I’ll leave that there, but as I said, this is a thinking book, and to me that’s never a bad thing.
2) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler: Rosemary used to be a chatterbox with a sister, brother and scientist parents. Now she is silent and an only child. Her sister Fern was her twin, her other half with whom she did everything. But when someone happened that forced her parents to send Fern away, everything that Rosemary knew about family and home left with it.
If I’m having trouble describing this, it’s because the book was lauded for having a big twist…which was plainly revealed on the cover copy of my paperback version. I read it for book club, and the reactions between those of us who knew the twist going in and those who didn’t were vastly different (unsurprisingly, the non-twisters liked it much more). If you do pick this up, proceed carefully and try to borrow a hardcover.
3) The Recipe For a Happy Life, by Brenda Janowitz: This book is a mystery—by context, not by genre. I went home to visit my parents, found it sitting in the guest room and started reading. No guests had stayed since my last visit, and neither of my parents have any idea where it came from. So, make of that what you will (and if it’s yours, come forward!).
When Manhattan lawyer Hannah Goodman’s life falls apart, she escapes to the Hamptons and the estate of her seven-times-married grandmother. Elegant, French and fantastic, Hannah’s grandmother is the polar opposite of her pragmatic, photojournalist mother, Gray, and it feels like a good idea to spend a few weeks indulging in her world of fancy. When Gray needs Hannah’s help, Hannah is resentful of the intrusion on what was supposed to be her reprieve. Their issues are compounded when Hannah’s grandmother suffers a fall from grace, and Hannah is faced with tough decisions about what kind of woman she wants to become.
4) Liars, Inc., by Paula Stokes: Max Cantrell is a good liar. It comes naturally to him, and so it makes sense to make some money off of that skill by providing forged permission slips and alibis for his affluent classmates. But then a cover story goes wrong when his best friend Preston goes missing. Max doesn’t want to blow him in, but after the FBI gets involved, he figures Preston’s safety is more important than the cover. By that time, the FBI is on to Max and his lies, and assumes him to be the prime suspect.
5) I am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells: Fun fact: this book gave me actual nightmares.
John Wayne Cleaver knows there is something wrong with him. He’s studied enough serial killers to see his own traits in them, and nothing his mortuary-owning mother or concerned therapist says can convince him otherwise. The unusual thing about John, though, is that he doesn’t actually want to kill anyone, and works hard at all times to fight his compulsions.
Then mutilated bodies start coming into the funeral home and before long, there’s no denying it—there’s a serial killer on the loose. John knows how the killer thinks because it’s how he thinks, and so it makes sense that by tapping into that part of his brain he can help solve the crime. But once John opens that door, can he really control what’s behind it?
6) Up Jumps the Devil, by Michael Poore: The Devil fell in love once, long ago, but now he walks the earth alone while the woman in question lives in heaven. The Devil’s best strategy is to make earth—specifically America—such a utopia that she can’t resist returning, but we keep messing it up. Maybe unsurprisingly, the Devil struggles with the concept of love and has trouble understanding how and why people act the way that they do. Jumping around a timeline that spans most of modern history but lives mainly in the 1960s and early 2000s, this book is a mind-bender that will test your concepts of good and evil.
7) Gutshot Straight, by Lou Berney: This is my second Lou Berney novel, after the excellent The Long and Faraway Gone. Gutshot is less heartfelt but funnier, and the pages go by quickly. Shake gets out of prison and immediately starts walking back in by taking a job delivering a package for his former girlfriend, now an Armenian mob boss. The package ends up being twofold—Gina, a wholesome housewife, and a suitcase of which you will never guess the contents. On the run in Panama, Shake and Gina try to keep ahead of their myriad enemies and figure out what to do with the damn suitcase, all while struggling to determine who is double-crossing who.
8) So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson: You read about the PR executive who tweeted something obnoxious about white people being impervious to AIDs, hopped on a ten-hour flight to Africa and landed to find her job, reputation and life in shambles, right? This book is about her and other people who made incredibly dumb decisions and then faced the ungodly wrath of the internet as a result. Public shaming was phased out in America as population centers became more urban and their residents, by definition, more anonymous. Shaming doesn't work if people don't know you. But tying your face, your name and your words together on the internet brings that accountability back. Is that a good thing? Probably, to an extent. Through almost every scenario in this book, I found myself thinking that the "victim" wholly created his or her situation by doing or saying something truly stupid and avoidable. But does that mean there's no such thing as too far? It's a question worth considering.
And the best thing I read this month…
9) Tomato Red, by Daniel Woodrell: I read Winter’s Bone a few months back, and although Jennifer Lawrence has made that novel more well known, the writing in this one just blew me away. Woodrell writes about life in rough, dirty places using some of the most beautiful language you’ve ever read. I think there’s often a misconception that disadvantaged or uneducated people are somehow less complicated than the rest of us, especially when those people are rural, and this book blows that notion to smithereens.
Jamalee Merridew wants out of the tiny Ozark town of West Table, but she’s not getting it done with her busted up face and bright red hair. Her brother Jason is uncommonly good-looking and very popular with the ladies, so at first Jamalee thinks he may be her ticket out—except that he’s not actually interested in ladies, and that’s a dangerous way to be in rural Arkansas.
The story is told by Sammy, a perpetual loser who passes through West Table looking for something to latch on to. He finds the Merridews, and together they hatch a plan to make their escape. The story is simple, but the words are anything but, so if you’re in the mood for 200 pages of syntax you’ll shake your head at, try this one out.