Home States, Red States, Mental States, Brontë Estates | What We’re Reading

As Halloween scratches at the LJ/School Library Journal doors, “What We’re Reading” team members hold off on the outright ghoulish books (maybe next week) and instead go in for more subtle horrors, like passive-aggressive criticism, political alienation, gaslighting, and dangerous gaps in mental health care. It’s not all horrible, though; we also find a rereadable, hard-to-describe tome and a perfectly decent fall read.

undeniableindianaLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
In between frenzied LJ Best Books reading, I take art breaks and other charming side trips. This week I’ve been revisiting my homeland by dipping into Edward McClelland’s How To Speak Midwestern (Belt) and Undeniably Indiana: Hoosiers Tell the Story of Their Wacky and Wonderful State (Indiana Univ.). Both are good, and both are making me miss my Hoosier home state—a little. Here’s McClelland’s take on the fine art of criticizing, passive-aggressively (i.e., the Midwestern way):

It’s been said that in New York, every insult is a compliment: “This is my buddy Jerry. He’s been bustin’ my balls for thirty years now. Right, Jer?” In the South, on the other hand, every compliment is an insult: “Well, aren’t you kind?” In the Midwest, you’re never certain whether you’re being complimented or insulted. Midwesterners don’t like to sound critical or hurt anyone’s feelings, so we’ve developed code words that allow us to avoid stating an opinion altogether. The most important words to know are “interesting” and “different.” If something has merit, but you don’t personally care for it, “it’s ‘interesting.’”[…]

[…] Calling something “different” suggests it violates a social norm, and that therefore, the person who is trying to avoid being insulting has been insulted himself, and would be justified in saying something much stronger—if he were the type of person who violates social norms.

Barbara Genco, Collection Management Editor, LJ
I’ve just begun reading National Book Award finalist hochschild-strangerHochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New Pr.). So many of us are flummoxed by the unwavering embrace of the current GOP presidential candidate, whose own needs and self-interest seem to be diametrically opposite the platform of the Republican party. Sensing a seismic political and social shift long before the 2016 election cycle began in earnest, Hochschild left her West Coast/Left Coast comfort zone in order to immerse herself in the Red State world of Louisiana Bayou country. A listener and questioner, she forces her readers to pay attention to the real-life concerns and alienation experienced by those interviewed for this book. No matter who wins in November, this community’s feelings of exclusion, and their disconnection and disassociation from the worlds of mainstream media and party “elites” are not going away. For a variety of reasons, they feel hopeless, angry, and abandoned. As I read, I kept thinking of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, another chronicle of societal rifts and cultural abandonment:

“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”

Here’s a link to an excerpt in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.

madwomanup-lowellLaura Girmscheid, Research Manager, LJS
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel of the Last Brontë (S. & S.) by debut author Catherine Lowell, published earlier this year. It’s similar to the recent spate of Jane Austen homages, except this time the Brontë sisters get their due. The novel is set in present-day Oxford University, where the last living Brontë relation, Samantha Whipple, receives a puzzling inheritance from her father. One by one, missing pieces from her past show up on her doorstep. I’m not even halfway through, but it seems as if the school has deliberately set her up in gothic conditions to suss out what she knows as well as to get their hands on the rumored missing Brontë artifacts. There is humor and delicious sexual tension between Samantha and her English professor, whom she trusts to help decode the literary clues that her father presumably put in place before his untimely death.

cityslept-sandersTyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
I’m almost done with Eli Sanders’s While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness (Viking), a sobering account of a mentally unstable young man and the rape of two women—and murder of one of them—he committed in Seattle in 2009. Sanders does an incredible job of tracking Isaiah Kalebu’s “descent into madness,” to use the author’s phrasing, and how his violence ripped apart the newfound love between Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hopper, in what was, sadly, a completely preventable crime. Sanders traces how the mental health system in America, combined with Washington State’s broke and static judicial system, created an (im)perfect storm that let down Kalebu at multiple stages during his troubled lifetime: during his parents’ chronic and violent arguments, some of which were directed at him; when he was shuffled from school to school, with teachers begging his parents to submit Isaiah for psychological evaluations; when, after being arrested for assaulting his mother and sister with a bike chain, multiple psychiatrists were hesitant to offer a diagnosis, despite glaring signs proving he might have an illness. What an uncomfortable read, knowing that at several points, someone could have prevented this horrific crime. What an important read; as I was making my way through Isaiah’s life, I kept getting upset and impatient, saying to myself, “There’s obviously something wrong with him!” and “Just lock him up!” and those sentiments are what’s wrong with the American mental health-care system today. When it comes to mental illness we are stuck in an archaic mind-set: “it doesn’t exist, and if it does, get it out of my sight.” Shedding light on those issues by delving deep into a shocking case study makes While the City Slept one of the most significant books of the year, in my humble opinion.

beforefeast-stanisicLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I just finished a wonderful little gem, Before the Feast (Tin House) by Saša Stanišić, a Bosnian-German author. I knew nothing about the book when I first picked it up, being attracted solely by the cool mosaic-y fox montage on the cover. I started reading, then had to put it down because a couple of library holds came in, and then quickly went from liking it in an agreeable way to falling in love—it was just the oddest, most enchanting book. It took a while to get into its rhythm and figure out what was going on, but with every page it grew on me until I was really sorry to finish it. Let’s see…kind of like the Brothers Grimm meets Wisconsin Death Trip meets Samuel Beckett meets an East German Spoon River Anthology.

There’s no plot to speak of. The novel takes place over the course of one night in a small former DDR (German Democratic Republic) village, and it’s basically a meditation on the ways that all of history is made of people, places, and stories, using the hyperlocal to comment on the bigger picture. But where a more sprawling novel with that kind of focus would be called a tapestry, the scale of this one makes me think of a hand-drawn map, with all its oddities and beauty. It’s contemporary and at the same time mythical—both within the modern narrative and the interwoven centuries-old legends—full of wonderfully black political humor, quirky without being cute, dreamlike and mundane. Definitely one to reread, and I don’t reread often—I really wanted to start over right away, but I’ll let it sit and percolate.

stone-lifeunexpectHenrietta Verma, WWR alumna
I just read J.A. Stone’s Life Unexpected (Lake Union: Amazon). In the novel, a widowed then divorced woman finds new love, or so she thinks. The saga mostly takes place at a beach house, the scene of several scandals and heartbreaks, and Stone portrays well the idyll that is beach life, as well as the shock that is returning to nonbeach existence after summer has faded. The story is compelling and the writing fine but not setting the world on fire. It’s a decent read for a fall evening, though.


Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench