Post-Civil War life in Texas is notoriously lawless. Traveling the lonely stretches of road between towns, one might be attacked and killed by Native Americans or by bandits. Strangers pulling up to a town might be confronted by “the law:” men who have taken it upon themselves to keep out Yankee sympathizers by any means necessary. Such is the world that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd lives in. An elderly war hero, he now lives a mostly nomadic existence, traveling from town to town across North Texas to read the latest news of the world to paying audiences.
It is on one of these excursions that Captain Kidd is offered a $50 gold piece to take a young orphan girl from Wichita Falls to her surviving relatives San Antonio. Johanna was taken by the Kiowa Indians when she was six years old; now ten years old, Johanna has spent the last four years living as a Kiowa and it’s the only life she remembers. In her eyes, she has been kidnapped, not rescued.
Although they’re set in contemporary Argentina, many of the short stories in Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire have an almost primal feel. A current of macabre superstition and urban legend threads the collection together, and nearly every story has some kind of undefinable darkness looming over its protagonists. The terror that transpired during Argentina’s relatively recent dictatorship — thousands were murdered in the 1970s and early 1980s — also haunts the pages. These are horror stories feel like they could be real.
Enríquez is very talented when it comes to creating atmospheric tension. Most of the stories take a surreal turn, but they all start out with recognizable contemporary scenarios: poverty, drug abuse, social inequality, childhood curiosity, obnoxious boyfriends. It isn’t until the reader is drawn into the relatable, reality-based settings that weird things start happening.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel is a dystopian reimagining of Joan of Arc. Set in the near future, Earth has been ravaged by radioactive fallout following several world wars. Survivors are white, sexless, hairless creatures who live as slaves under CIEL’s tyrannical rule; these creatures inscribe epic stories onto their skin. Other humans — the wealthy — have escaped and now hover safely above Earth. CIEL is headed by Jean de Men, a sadistic leader who rules with an iron fist.
Jean de Men is believed to have killed a child named Joan of Dirt, turning her into a martyr for a resistance that is brewing. Joan glows blue light and has a mystical relationship with the Earth; she has the power to destroy, but she also has the power to bring things back to life. In this new world, where everyone’s genitalia has basically shriveled up and fallen off, her powers have made her the stuff of legend. One of the sexless slaves, Christine Pizan (a nod to 12th-century proto-feminist author Christine de Pizan), is particularly enamored with Joan of Dirt’s story.
I became introduced to Meg Howrey’s writing a few years ago through her sophomore novel, a New York City ballet drama called The Cranes Dance. Her third novel intrigued me because of its radically different subject matter: in The Wanderers, three seasoned astronauts prepare for the first human mission to Mars.
A multinational crew — Helen Kane from the United States, Sergei Kuznetsov from Russia, and Yoshihiro Tanaka from Japan — is chosen by a private space exploration company to spend 17 months together in an intense training simulation. During this period, they’ll live together as if they were really on a journey to Mars. They’ll train inside a high-tech 24/7 simulation of their upcoming mission that comes complete with equipment failures and other possible emergencies they might encounter. Each has their own visions of making history, but they also harbor emotional baggage. Regardless, they are determined not to crack under pressure.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books, 2016
What it is: Khosrova takes readers around the world to examine the cultural and religious significance of butter. She also looks at the history of butter making and its subsequent commercialization, then turns her focus to contemporary butter artisans. Only about half the book deals with butter’s history; the other half consists of butter-filled recipes.
Why I read it: Because butter is awesome.
What I thought: I’m glad to be alive now and not back in the day when butter sold on the market was filthy and sometimes loaded with rocks to make the butter seem heavier. But in all seriousness, the science behind butter making is really interesting, and Khosrova packs a lot of information into a few chapters without making it too dense. As someone who travels a few times a year, I kind of want to start hitting up butter artisans from now on to see what I’ve been missing out on!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Publisher/Year: Random House Audio, 2013
Narrators: Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and 164 others
Length: 7 hours, 25 minutes
What it is: Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862. A grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln was said to have entered his son’s crypt in the middle of the night to be alone with him. On the other side, in the Bardo — a Tibetan term that refers to a sort of in-between place between the living and the dead — Willie Lincoln doesn’t understand what’s going on and why his father won’t take him home. Several other people, who are buried in the cemetery and are stuck in the Bardo alongside Willie, are touched. A plan takes shape as to what should happen next.
Why I listened to it: I preordered the audiobook partly because of the hype, but mostly because Nick Offerman and Carrie Brownstein are narrators. I was also curious about how an audiobook with 166 narrators would sound.
What I thought: I know this is an unpopular opinion because everyone raves about George Saunders, but I don’t get the hype. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments; there were parts that genuinely made me laugh, and there were several parts where the grief is palpable. It’s a unique spin on historical fiction, and I could appreciate what he was trying to do, but I just couldn’t get 100% on board with it. As for the 166 narrators thing, it’s…a lot. I do think that Offerman and Sedaris, whose roles are bigger than everyone else’s, were perfectly cast, though.