THE LIBRARY 2014
Let's have some superlatives, shall we?
Best Picture Book Not For A Child: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
Slim and scary! Lordamercy but Carroll can craft a fine horror story. Her use of color is impeccable, the variety is impressive, and most of all, these are genuinely frightful. Lucky for you, she has an awesome site with samples of her creepy line drawings.
Best Physical Book I Held And You Should Too: Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
So there's this big Scandinavian furniture store that's universally loved except as it turns out not only is the store full of affordable, stylish home decor but also GHOSTS. Or demons. I can't remember. Either way, this book's premise is hilarious, but what's more, the book itself mimics a catalog with increasingly terrifying and absurd offerings. Gimmicks aside, the story is really good, and Grady Hendrix may have the best author bio I've ever read.
Best I Have Really Weird Writer Crushes on Both These Dudes: Brian Evenson & Lawrence Wright (tie)
2014 was the year of Brian Evenson for me. I read his short story, "The Wavering Knife" in Library of America's Fantastic Tales anthology, and I was hooked. Evenson's first collection, Altmann's Tongue, is unlike anything I've ever read before. These shorts are unsettling in the most incredible way: there's a nameless wasteland with a fortress stocked with crazies; a little boy who finds his step-father's mouth sewn shut, crammed with bees; a trucker who drives from CA to TX, accumulating bodies he carves along the way. But this is David Lynch's breed of scary, not Rob Zombie. It's increasingly rare that I read something more than once because it's that good, but Evenson is a writer whose work I can always return to gladly.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Wright has been working on books that are far more scary because they are true. His expose on Scientology, Going Clear, is now available in a smart-looking paperback and was one of my favorite reads of 2013. in 2014, I read his two other cult books, Remembering Satan and Saints and Sinners. The first is a great piece of true crime writing about a truly bizarre Washington state case in 1988 that became a modern day witch-hunt. Some of the details will sour your stomach, but, again, Lawrence Wright is not trying to shock you. Likewise, in Saints and Sinners, Wright profiles a variety of religious leaders from Satanists to diehard atheists to televangelists. It's a fascinating look at some of America's freakiest doctrines. Wright seems to be focusing on politics at the moment, but if he ever returns to investigative weirdo journalism, I'll be first in line to buy.
Be forewarned. The following contains some really unpopular opinions. But it's MY blog on MY website and I want the world, I want the whole world!
Again, of the 82 books I attempted to read, I ended up ditching six. Most I had to take back to the library, some I just couldn't commit to, and one has a special place on my literary hit list, but that's a story for another time. Here are a few notable books that I read and took a LOT of issue with.
What's The Big Idea? Most Overrated: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (tie)
I have my Goodreads linked to my Twitter, so any time I add a book you lucky fuckers who follow me get an annoying tweet saying "I'M READING _________." Usually these go completely unnoticed in the drivel of 140 character or less tweets, but when "I'm Reading FUN HOME" went live, my feed blew up. The consensus was pretty unanimous. "OMFG ITS SO GOOD OMG ALISON BECHDEL IS A HERO OMG!!!"
The Bechdel test is brilliant. Alison Bechdel herself deserves all the accolades for her activism and unflinching honesty. She is a pioneer and I'd definitely go to any event she spoke at. But Fun Home? Fun Home just isn't that good. The art style isn't notable in any way, the pages all follow the same pattern, and the writing is so clinical and academic - the whole thing is stiff and rigid and so, so cold. That's probably the point, but I couldn't understand why Fun Home was so celebrated.
Granted, I think 99% of memoirs don't need to be written because face it: no one is that damn special. And Fun Home is supposedly the end-all be-all of graphic memoir, but it's like Henry Fielding's Tom Jones that I had to slog through for a freshman novel course. Groundbreaking, influential, sure, but its influence outweighs its content.
As for The Goldfinch - wtf? There's a freaking explosion on page 15, and what does Tartt choose to focus on? The terrorists who bombed the museum? No. A painting. 770 pages of a painting.
The characters are caricatures of themselves: Theo is a dull everyman with a pill problem, his mother an idealized angel, Pippa a glorious manic pixie dream girl, Hobie the kindly older gent and Boris - BORIS. "He talk without articles, yes? Make authentic. Not sound cheesy, this is dialect!"
This gets the Pulitzer? This?!
The Movie was Better/ WHY ARE WE LETTING KIDS READ THIS?: The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
I can't remember why or how or where I watched The Spectacular Now, but I really, really enjoyed it. Teenagers! Hope! Romance! Potential! I swooned. So then I read the book, and man, was I amped because the book takes place in Oklahoma.
NOTE: I, RACHEL RICHARDSON, AM FROM OKLAHOMA.
The book is basically an ode to underage drinking. As someone who drank a lot while underage and of age and basically way too much until very recently, this saddened and disturbed me. I don't understand why YA has become so dang morbid.
What the Fuck Did I Just Read?: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Pulled directly from my Goodreads review:
God but this was bad. So bad. It read like something I would have dreamt up as an adolescent: "So there's this lady? And she's like a time traveler? And she carves gargoyles? And this guy goes to hell? And he has this snake in his spine? Oh and then there's like these other stories about like a gay Viking and these Japanese lovers? And there's a dog? And lots of descriptions of food? And it's all like dark and weird and stuff?"
Except morbid 12 year old Rachel would probably have written a better book, with fewer winky-winky asides, more developed characters, and probably not mentioning the BURNED OFF PENIS every four pages.
I think that sums it up.
I was in a pretty terrible mood for quite a lot of 2014, and most of these reviews, I should note, happened in the first half of the year when I was finishing my thesis and was therefore full of incredible scorn for just about everything. But one lucky, lucky book truly broke my heart just last November.
Later tonight, a bevy of A-list celebrities will sit through a lot of emotional speeches broadcast live on television, and some will take home a shiny little man, and some will probably cry, and after way too long the 2015 Academy Awards will finally be over.
So it's timely and appropriate that I bestow the ultimate accolades onto two books: one that made me so freaking mad that I went on Twitter hate spree, and the other that has basically changed my life for the absolute better.
And what's craziest: Both books came out on October 21st! What a momentous day.
THE VERY WORST
In August I started working for a local independent bookshop here in good ol' Sparkle City, South Carolina (maybe you've read about us?). This means I have alarmingly easy access to books. As Meg put it, it's like giving a methhead free reign at a pharmacy.
So when Chuck Palahniuk's newest title, Beautiful You, arrived signed and in hardback, I picked it up.
I've read a lot of Chuck P. I am not one of those maniacal Fight Club fans - though I do think it's a hell of a premise and I'll happily watch the movie - but, for the most part, I considered Chucky-Chuck a decent writer with a defined style. As for his popularity? His books are a fuckload better than Twilight. Or Fifty Shades. Which happened to be his target in Beautiful You.
In Beautiful You, our innocent protagonist Penny is hand-picked by mega-bajillionaire C. Linus Maxwell, aka "Climax-Well," who is developing a sinister line of sex toys that will presumably make all men extinct. Because women only need men for their dicks (though that might be true).
The book is crude. It's vapid. It's shallow. It's satire. It's a tongue-in-cheek masturbatory dirty joke. It's embarrassing. It makes a point, but what?
So I read it, because I'd already suffered through Damned and because I have a dirty mind and thought it'd be a sexy read. No. No, it is not. It is rife with bungholes and pussies and throbbing members, but the whole thing is immature and just not good.
And I'm heartbroken, because Invisible Monsters, his 1999 novel about drag queens and super-models and jaw wounds and shotguns - is really tremendous. Survivor is good too. Rant is unforgettable. There's skill in those novels, and it's all too easy to picture young Chucky Poo as a hopeful writer, doing what we all do, sitting alone in a room with his madness and typing.
And now? Now he's a self-satisfied prick who can splurt out whatever drivel he wants, it will be published, it will be purchased, and he knows it, as evidenced by the massively inferior quality of his last, oh, four books. Plus, he showed up to the gigantic release party in his bathrobe. We get it, Chuck. You can do whatever you fucking want.
THE VERY BEST
On the very same day that Beautiful You was spreading its malicious ironic jism everywhere, a much more sincere book also hit shelves, and young Rachel was never quite the same.
I knew Lynda Barry by name and because my thesis director once burned me a copy of her spoken-work and accordion album, The Lynda Barry Experience. My thesis director apparently possesses psychic powers.
Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is Barry's latest work and everything about it is arresting. It's a composition notebook about composition notebooks, and the writing goes every which way and there's monkeys and spirals and houses on fire. It's a joy to behold.
What's more, I couldn't have found Syllabus at a better time in my life. For approximately one hundred years, I've been keeping detailed journals about my lurid little life. Increasingly my journal entries would be prefaced by a few self-flagellating paragraphs about how diligent I used to be and how bad I was at it now. Altogether, it became a chore, and I definitely - definitely! - questioned what the fuck was the point of all this.
Enter Syllabus. I had composition notebooks from my graduate degree, but those were for notes in class ONLY, which was a strict and arbitrary rule that Barry basically gave me permission to break.
Since December, I've been notebooking pretty faithfully. There are doodles and to-do lists and scrawls and manifestos and plans and all sorts of other nonsense, and I use all kinds of markers and pencils and don't follow a format at all. It's hugely liberating. I don't feel hindered or guilty for not documenting every little thing that happens to me because, come on - who cares?
So I leave you with this quote of Barry's that easily summarizes why I love her:
When I start feeling too concerned that all the words I write be very smart and about something worthwhile, I find my urge to write replaced with an urge to draw monkeys.