Currently Reading: Best of August 2015

This “Best of” post is coming to you on September 3rd instead of August 31st because of a massively chaotic last couple weeks, primarily because of moving. However, it is also a little late because, especially compared to last month (overflowing with good books) this was a disappointing book month. Nevertheless, here are five things I read that stuck out. (And here’s hoping September is another exciting month for reading!)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. My history with Neil Gaiman as a writer is kind of complicated. He was probably my favorite writer in high school, the kind of writer whose work sent me into paroxysms of jealous glee of “this is what I want to do, this is the kind of stories I want to tell.” And then he…wasn’t.

I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman in years, since I had my “idol with feet of clay” moment in college and realized that, like most human beings, Neil Gaiman is problematic as hell. However, I kept hearing about this book, and seeing it at my workplace, and it was short and also the only Gaiman I haven’t read (other than the most recent short story collection Trigger Warnings) so I decided to go for it.

Absolutely worth it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminded me of why I loved Gaiman’s works so much – the blend of ordinariness and fairy-tale, of the fantastic and the mundane, the quality that reminds me of a familiar story from your childhood while simultaneously being fresh and new, drawing you in and absorbing you for the duration. A lovely little story – short and beautiful, and left me just a little breathless.

The best way I can think to summarize this book is that it recalls the magic of being a child – the darkness of it, but also the wonder – with a particular spellbinding quality that is utterly Gaiman. I can resent it, but Neil Gaiman’s work still has the power to enchant me.

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville. This second short story collection by China Mieville was occasionally a little abstruse even for me, but at the same time even when I didn’t understand what was going on it was a joy to read. Like Mieville’s writing before, he plays with the grotesque and the surreal and sometimes the downright horrifying – some of my favorite stories in this collection are also the weirdest, like “Covehithe” about sunken oil rigs coming back out of the ocean onto land, like enormous metal turtles.

While The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer is the New Weird series that’s taken off this summer (and I am delighted), and I can’t help but hope some of those people will start looking more widely at that genre and pick up China Mieville. Sometimes I feel like I have to warn people looking at his work that “he’s…really weird” – but honestly, that’s part of the joy. There’s no one else writing quite like Mieville right now, and this fascinating collection of short stories just proves it all over again.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. And now we turn to the nonfiction part of my list. Vowell’s book, taking the reader through the assinations of three US presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) is humorous and highly readable. Vowell is both informative and engaging, and her meandering course also includes gems like the totem pole of shame dedicated to William Seward for not holding up his end of the potlatch. Vowell’s book is less a history than a travelogue, and reminded me less of a travelogue than of reading the blog of a friend. Thoroughly enjoyable book, even if you didn’t think you cared about Garfield or McKinley (or, for that matter, Lincoln).

Missoula by Jon Krakauer. I can’t call this book “enjoyable.” It was hard to read, and sobering, and at times even depressing, but nonetheless I felt like it was one of the most important books I read this month – even though I feel like I know the subject material well. The book focuses on the series of rape prosecutions in Missoula, Montana, connected with the university and the Grizzly football team there. Krakauer tells the stories of the victims with a mixture of compassion and muffled anger, and his presentation never feels exploitative or overwrought. In light of Emma Sulkowicz’s highly publicized “Carry That Weight” project, and the backlash against her, questions of how rape is dealt with on college campuses continues to be relevant, not just in the public sphere but in how legal cases are processed and prosecuted. Illuminating, but painful to read.

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. I’m a true crime nut, I admit it. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve always been kind of a fan – googling serial killers, reading up on truecrime.tv, and so on. Lately I’ve been looking for some good books, and a co-worker of mine recommended this one about the Lucie Blackman case in Japan.

While Richard Lloyd Parry sometimes falls into some weird, Orientalist traps, overall this was a creepy, intense, and strongly written true crime book. Parry focuses most on Lucie Blackman’s life and the hostess culture in Japan, delving in the last half of the book into the trial and conviction of the culprit.

Obviously, this book is kind of a niche recommendation – I wouldn’t say anyone not into true crime needs to read it. But I figure in the interests of accurately presenting my reading habits – and what I enjoyed this month – it has to go on this list.

While overall I wasn’t stunned by most of the things I read this month, a special recognition does go to The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan, a book in which knights battle on dinosaurs, billed as a crossover between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones. Whatever my problems with it (a gratuitous rape scene toward the end of the book, mostly, and relatively lackluster prose) I have to say it’s some of the best executed weird concept fantasy I’ve seen recently. Bravo, Milan. You wrote political intrigue with dinosaurs, and you actually did it pretty well.

Also, bonus points for including a scene in which a man goes down on a woman. That was pretty cool too.

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