The Mars Room // Rachel Kushner

The Mars RoomI’ll keep this short and sweet, as plenty has been written about the new novel from National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner.

Romy isn’t quite sure where she went wrong. What is this decision? Or that one? Now serving two consecutive life sentences, Romy examines her choices, starting in her wild and neglected childhood, and how her choices may not have been choices at all.

You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. You would not have asked him for help. You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a remarkable novel about life in prison, life leading up to prison, and those that cross the path of prisoners – fellow inmates, a well-meaning GED teacher, the police officers and lawyers involved in the justice system. The timeline moves back and forth, and to multiple characters, although it primarily sticks with Romy (though there are even excerpts by convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski). It’s difficult to do this hard, humane novel justice in so few words, but it’s a thoughtful, nuanced story of the circumstances and decisions that, in the end, make up an entire life.

The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.

*I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.


The Poisonwood Bible // Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees The Poisonwood Bible
The idea behind this exercise is to connect books in any way that’s meaningful to you, from the profound to the inane. Although Kevin Bacon is typically behind the six degrees game, books are just a bit more fun. May’s pick is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I haven’t read that one, but I read and loved her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am absolutely fascinated by living off the land/back to nature books and I wish that’s something I could pursue (though I’ll settled for raised garden beds for now). I’m part of a book club that focuses on nature literature and one of the few fiction picks that has made the cut is The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.

One of Abbey’s most famous environmentally minded contemporaries was Wallace Stegner. I’ve only read Angle of Repose, but his others are high on my list as well. One book I did read is David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.

Part of the book follows Gessner as he travels to various places that were important to Abbey and Stegner. It reminded my a bit of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is one woman’s journey, through many adverse condition with adventure (and a bit of sex) thrown in.

With the description I just gave of Wild, it pairs well with The River at Night, which is the story of an unprepared group of women who embark on a dangerous trip through the wilderness.

A similar synopsis, though vastly different in content, is applicable to Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation is the story of four (though briefly five) women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist – who walk into a forest to explore the unknown. To put it mildly.

From The Poisonwood Bible to Annihilation in six easy steps. Where would you find yourself after six degrees of literary separation? Join in here.

*Apparently I was having so much fun that I just kept going, when I should’ve stopped at The River at Night. However, I love the connection between The River at Night and Annihilation so much that I can’t bear to remove it. So… Bonus book!




The Ghost Notebooks // Ben Dolnick

The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick is an eerie, compelling novel about newly engaged couple Hannah and Nick. When Hannah loses her job at the New York Historical Society, she starts looking for work outside New York City. She finds The Wright House, and small museum with a big history (one that is not shared with her before hire), and becomes caretaker. The move to Hibernia, NY is good for the couple. Initially.

“The line between romantic getaway and lonely creepy farmhouse is, it turns out, fairly thin.”

Dolnick has crafted a chilly, atmospheric novel laced with humor. It highlights the delicate balance between what a person shares about an experience and what an experience actually entails. How well do we really know those who are closest to us? I suspect it’s almost never as well as we think.

This is a story about what haunts us. What we think about when we can’t sleep at night. What we can live with, and what we can live without. Despite these big themes, it’s a slim novel and an easy read – one I’d recommend to those who love a ghost story that does not veer towards horror.

*I received a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.


The Sea Beast Takes a Lover // Michael Andreasen

Sea BeastI can’t say enough about this weird little gem of a book. An amorous sea beast, a cannibalistic captain, and alien abductees are just a few of the oddities that fill this collection. There are 11 stories  and all are vivid, humorous, and paradoxical. Andreasen has written a noteworthy debut, one absolutely worth your consideration. The title story in the collection is my favorite, but I am likely to swoon over an unexpected John Irving reference (there’s also a bear in another story), especially when said reference is The World According to Garp being read by a doomed sailor on a ship being wooed to death by a lovesick kraken.

On the fence? You can get a good feel for the author’s style and sense of humor in story The King’s Teacup at Rest, which appeared in the New Yorker. I particularly love this exchange from within the story:

The hot-dog stand. A few bloated green wieners still floating in a steel pond of brine. Fungal buns spill out of the trolley’s lower compartment. Pigeons have been at them. A few are still lying in dizzy, half-dead piles nearby. The smell of the cart has made the bear* morose.

“Forgive me, sire,” the steward says, “but these look unfit for Your Majesty’s consumption.”

“We will eat them,” the king declares. “Relish?”

“Also unwise,” the steward says.

“Just a dab, then.”

“Please, sire,” the steward entreats, “recall the fish tacos at the Morristown County Fair.” He looks to the scout for help. The boy says nothing, pretending instead to read a smear of pigeon droppings on the cotton-candy machine.

“Serve and obey,” the king says.

The steward bows. With a handkerchief over his nose, he constructs something that, in a world without proper standards, could be considered a hot dog. He serves it to the king on a small silver platter drawn from his attaché case. The king stuffs the mass into his face, rancid mustard peeling down his chin and onto the mange of his ermine.

“Passable,” the king declares. “Now take us to the rides.”

If you like your fiction strange and your stories short, pick up The Sea Beast Takes a Lover by Michael Andreasen forthwith.

I first reviewed this book on instagram? Anyone I’m not following in the Instagram/Bookstagram community? Let me know and I’ll find you!

*I received a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.


Euphoria // Lily King

Euphoria CoverOnce upon a time, long, long ago, I was a young anthropology major fascinated by the field work of formative anthropologists (even though they didn’t always employ the best methods). I read Coming of Age in Samoa, among many other texts, and thought (briefly) I had found my calling. Ultimately archaeology lured me away, but it made an impression that has lasted a lifetime.

So far, at any rate.

Despite this, and despite rave reviews from so many trusted bookish friends, I had no yet read Euphoria by Lily King. I finally did and it was so very, very good. Brilliant storytelling, beautiful writing, and compelling main characters brought the story to life. Nell Stone, loosely based on Margaret Mead, is a newly famous anthropologist. She is married to Schuyler Fenwick, who is deeply jealous of her success. While traveling to Australia, the meet old acquaintance Andrew Bankson and opt to stay on in New Guinea. This choice, among others that follow, changes the course of all of their lives.

Although Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson served as the inspiration for the love triangle that develops, the outcome, and the story King tells, is very different from reality. The three anthropologists, both in history and in the novel, spend months working together on the Sepik River in what was then known as the Territory of New Guinea. Fen and Nell are working with the Tam, while Andrew works with the geographically close Kiona. The story propels them together, both due to Andrew’s loneliness and his attraction to Nell. It is an intimate novel, both tender and refreshing, and in the end just a little bit heartbreaking.

“Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling of which I could make little sense, an ache that seemed to have no name but want. I want. Intransitive. No object. It was the opposite of want to die. But it was scarcely more bearable.”

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read this novel, but I’m glad I finally did. It will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time to come – the story of Nell and Fen and Andrew is deep in my stomach.

Do you ever find a book that you wish you had found so much sooner?

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