writing on the dark side

[october 2020 ISSUE]

THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James

This famous novel has been depicted for years as a ghost story; however, I'd argue it is more a tale of psychological terror.  An unnamed governess arrives at the Bly estate in order to watch after two children whose parents have passed away. Eventually, the governess finds that these ghosts are Peter Quint, a former care-taker of the house and a driver for the family, and Ms. Jessel, the former governess. Both children are depicted from the beginning of the novel as being extremely innocent and beautiful. The governess, in fact, seems to be almost overtaken by their innocence and  attractiveness. We do not yet know enough about the governess’s backstory to judge how credible her observations are. As the two figures of Ms. Jessel and Peter Quint start to appear, her objective as a caretaker becomes much more possessive and almost frightening. She wants to save the children from  these dark figures, but at the same time, she seems to want them only to herself. This novel will make you re-define your definition of a "scary" story. - Palmer

HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux

 

Although Halloween stories traditionally revolve around the supernatural, it feels important this year to instead focus on the actual -- a global pandemic and an increasingly volatile election season are horrifying enough without adding werewolves to the mix. Something very real and terrifying that's been on my mind lately is the prospect of diminished womxn's rights. In Happening (L'evenement), Annie Ernaux lays bare the implications of what it really means to lose autonomy over your own body. The book is a harrowing account of Ernaux's abortion during the early 1960s in France, where it was then illegal, and the lasting emotional impact of the experience. Happening is a story for our moment, both essential and devastating. - Habiba

A CHILDREN'S BIBLE by Lydia Millet

 

While not marketed as a thriller or a spooky story, A Children’s Bible is a book that tells of the very real horrors that might arise if climate changes continue. The story takes place at a massive summer house where multiple families are vacationing. The children feel contempt for their parents, who spend their days in a drunken, sex-and-drug-filled stupor. When a hurricane and then a series of other disasters strike, it is the children who act responsibly in the wake of these events. The group decide to run away from their parents, navigating the apocalyptic chaos with dark humor. Bonus: the novel is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award.  - Lia

Books in translation

[September 2020 ISSUE]

IN OTHER WORDS by Jhumpa Lahiri

Although Jumpa Lahiri's In Other Words is primarily a collection of nonfiction essays about her relationship with language and learning Italian, the part that struck me most was actually one of the few fictional short stories included in the book. Without spoiling too many details, "The Exchange" is about a translator who thinks she accidentally takes someone else's sweater after trying on clothes at a sample sale. She discovers later that the sweater is indeed hers; it is instead her perception of it that has changed. 

It is this idea of the familiar becoming foreign that is central to In Other Words. Lahiri, who grew up speaking both Bengali and English, became obsessed with learning Italian and decided to move to Rome with her family to immerse herself in the language. Every time she believes she has made progress with Italian, linguistic subtleties present themselves anew -- the recognizable transforms into the unrecognizable. 

In Other Words is essential reading for anyone learning a new language or even wishing to gain a firmer grasp of their own. Lahiri's deft memoir is a personal linguistic journey that alludes to the significance of facing the unknown. - Habiba

THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a haunting novel about a society where things slowly go missing: perfume, birds, ribbon, boats... The list goes on and on. The Memory Police’s job is to enforce that everything gets removed from the island. Once an item is declared “disappeared,” everyone on the island forgets that it even existed—including the narrator. Only when the narrator gets to know someone who remembers everything that vanishes does the narrator begin to learn the power of memory. But by the time she comes to these realizations, she is already in danger of losing her sense of self. Ogawa has been compared to Kafka, Beckett, and Orwell—for good reason. The Memory Police left me thinking about individualism, memory, and identity for days after I put it down. - Lia

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in French in 1844. Alexandre Dumas wrote this compelling novel keeping revenge at the forefront of the storyline. At the beginning of the story, the main character, Edmond Dantès, is portrayed as an innocent and sympathetic young  man. However, it is clear from the start that there are people who are jealous of him. Edmond is sentenced to one of the cruelest prisons in France, and he struggles to understand why until he realizes who has betrayed him. This novel is a must-read, particularly if you want to see the underdog come out on top with piles of gold around him (literally). - Palmer

our favorite Books UNDER 250 PAGES

[AUGUST 2020 ISSUE]

LITTLE LABORS by Rivka Galchen

I recently re-read Rebecca Solnit's essay on "Women's Work and the Myth of the Art Monster", in which she presents the radical idea that women don't have to choose between family and their art -- they can be mothers, daughters, nurturers, creatives and thinkers all at once. Solnit's thesis is embodied by the beautiful and succinct Little Labors, a meditation on the intersections of art and motherhood. You don't have to be a mother or a writer to appreciate the way Galchen seamlessly weaves together reflections on babies and youthhood in literature with anecdotes of her own mothering. In one chapter, Galchen writes about the ways in which the supernatural can inform the actual, but her quietly brilliant book is a testament to how the feminine experience transcends both. - Habiba

SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore

Self-Help was published in 1985 and established Moore as one of the greats in regards to short story writing. While each story is worth reading, my favorite is "The Kid's Guide to Divorce," in which a mother and daughter spend a night watching movies together. At the end of it, the mother inquires how the daughter's time with her father has been going on the weekends, but the daughter does not answer honestly. What stands out in this story is the key attention to detail. The themes in the collection range from familial issues, betrayal, the act of writing itself and loss. - Palmer 

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

 

All over the world—particularly in Japan—many women are expected to get married when they reach a certain age. Women who don’t get married when they're young might choose instead to rise in prestigious careers. Sayaka Murata’s Convience Store Woman challenges that idea: thirty-six year old protagonist Keiko Furukura is content working at a convenience store in Japan. The more pleasure she takes from her job, the more she is pressured to try fitting in with what other women her age are doing. While the book was short enough to read in an afternoon, the questions it raised resonated with me long after I finished the last sentence. Murata wastes no time in the novel judging Keiko’s life choices. Instead, the book is just a small, admiring portrait of a woman who found an alternative path towards fulfillment. - Lia

WANT by Lynne Steger Stong

In Lynne Steger Stong’s Want, I often felt as if I were watching a realistic horror movie in slow motion. The story is told through a series of vignette’s about a mother named Elizabeth struggling to support her family while yearning for a connection to her past. “Don’t leave,” I think, as Elizabeth skips out on her job to drink coffee and read erudite novels. “Don’t spend all your savings on a dinner,” I think after Elizabeth and her husband go to a fancy restaurant with one of his old friends after filing for bankruptcy. As the same time, her character is easy to understand. Struggling to make ends meet with a Ph.D, two kids, a husband, and two jobs, Elizabeth longs for something more. Through Steger’s subtle craftsmanship, interesting questions are raised about the underhanded brutality  that befalls a certain kind of woman who dares to want. Along the way, the reader witnesses all the brutalities that Elizabeth herself in as she struggles to survive. - Lia

Books That Make You Feel Like You're On Vacation (July 2020 Issue)

THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP by Nina George

This book will sweep you right off your feet and into the French countryside. Written by beloved international author, Nina George, the plot centers around an older man named Jean Perdu. Jean runs a bookstore (from his boat!) and has a unique gift of being able to tell any customer exactly what book he or she ought to read. Jean is searching for his old and lost love as he departs from his life in Paris, learning new lessons along the way. - Palmer 

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

Although Didion's classic novel set in California is a scathing critique of superficial Hollywood culture, I found myself transported by the book to some glamorous poolside, albeit with a touch of malaise. The protagonist Maria faces multiple breakdowns and copes by driving long expanses of desert freeway—Play It As It Lays is a true Didion masterpiece not to be missed. I finished it in one sitting, sipping white wine and imagining a California breeze in my hair. - Habiba

BEACH READ by Emily Henry

As the title suggests, Beach Read is just the kind of book you want when you are out in the sun. January and Augustus were rivals in their college writing class. While Augustus went on to be an acclaimed writer of literary fiction, January writes bestselling romance novels. The only thing they have in common? When they both find themselves living next door, they are both struggling from writer’s block. It’s not until they challenge one another to switch genres that the two of them learn that they have more in common than they might think. January will teach Gus to write a swoon-worthy rom-com while Gus teaches January to write dark literary fiction. Easy, right? The plot deviates just enough from the classic rom-com tropes to create a complex love story of two people learning to heal from hardship. Was there ever a better time to read about overcoming difficulty and finding love?- Lia

 

THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel

While the story centers around people who meet at Hotel Caiette (aka “the glass hotel”), don’t mistake this book for your typical vacation story. The hotel is owned by a man named Alkaitus, who implicates many characters in his Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme. But as much as The Glass Hotel is an escapist tale and crime thriller, it is also a ghost story and tale of survival. A book that started as Mandel's rendering of Bernie Madoff’s downfall turned into a captivating story of how people try to search for meaning. However you classify The Glass Hotel, it is a book that is hard to put down. - Lia

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