Recommended reading: Universal Harvester

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If you are of a certain age, you likely remember the video store as a regular stop on the errands run. And if you grew up in a small American town, you may remember the locally owned video store as a peculiar confluence of people and culture in a place where there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. I have fond memories of our local video store and the woman who owned it, who always made hilariously bad movie recommendations. I could have worked there one summer as a teen but didn’t, and now I wonder if that’s the reason I missed out on a writing career.

Anyway, Universal Harvester by John Darnielle is not about a video store, although it does begin there. Jeremy is working in a small-town Iowa video store, biding his time while he figures out what to do with his life. A couple of customers returning videotapes remark that extra snippets of film footage have been added to the movies. Jeremy investigates and is thrown off kilter by what he sees. He shows the movies to his boss, who happens to recognize a house glimpsed in a snippet of footage, and she drives there to check it out.

You may think you know where this is going. You would be wrong.

This little book is exquisitely written, a meditation on many things, including loss, grief, family, small-town life, Midwest culture, and death (perhaps the “universal harvester” of the title, or does that refer to some piece of farm equipment?). It is about all the things in life that we can’t really know, and as such, there are a lot of unknowns left for the reader. It is in many ways disturbing, unsettling, off kilter, but it is also meditative and mournful. A short book, it will take very little time to read, but you will be left thinking about it long after you’re done.

Cooking again: Classic Southern slaw

I used to cook quite avidly, but interests wax and wane, and lately cooking has seemed like more of a chore than a joy. Or perhaps with the coming of spring, I feel myself coming to life again, and that has rejuvenated an interest in the basic pleasures of life. Whatever the reason, last night I returned to my roots and made a delish Southern meal of crispy oven-fried chicken, creamy coleslaw, and buttermilk biscuits.

I am currently cooking out of Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways by Jennifer Brulé, which is a fairly ingenious cookbook that revitalizes old standards by presenting them in contemporary and international forms. It’s also a learning book, with very clear instructions, so you no longer need fear frying chicken.

I am also cooking out of America’s Test Kitchen Cooking for Two, because I only just recently had the revelation that the way to reduce all those leftovers I keep having to throw away is to just cook less. This cookbook takes many familiar favorites and accurately reduces the ingredient amounts, cooking times, and pan sizes for you so you don’t have to. As most recipes for “four” usually turn out enough food for six or more, I calculated that recipes designed for two would be enough for my family of three, with perhaps one lunch leftover. The biscuits were very good–and easy–but I think my family actually wanted more of them than was good for them.

Where are the pictures, you may ask? While I heartily support gorgeous food photography, I prefer to eat my creations rather than photograph them. With that in mind, I share this recipe for classic creamy coleslaw, which I have modified from the original in Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways just a bit. In my opinion, this is exactly what a Southern slaw is supposed to taste like.

Classic Creamy Coleslaw 

Whisk together 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste. This is your dressing. You really don’t want too much. Set that aside and shred or thinly slice about 8-10 ounces of cabbage, green, purple, or a mixture. Or if you’re lazy like me, buy a bag of the preshredded stuff. Peel and shred two carrots. Slice four scallions, white and light green parts. Mix all of this together with the dressing. The cabbage should be just coated, not gloppy. Good stuff. (Note: I cut the original recipe in half, and it easily made enough for at least four people, possibly six.)

Recommended Reading: Ill Will

“Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination — that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams.”

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a hard story to summarize, but let me try. The focal character is Dustin Tillman, who’s had a hard life. When he was thirteen, his parents and his aunt and uncle were massacred, and his adopted older brother Russell was indicted for the crimes, based largely on Dustin’s and his cousin Kate’s testimony. Which concerned Satanism (a big thing back in the ’80s, if you recall). Thirty years later, though, Russell is cleared by the Innocence Project and released. Dustin, now a seemingly successful psychologist, is also dealing with his wife’s terminal cancer and his estrangement from his teenage sons, and he’s forming an unhealthy relationship with a patient, Aqil. Aqil has uncovered what he thinks is a serial killer (or possibly a cult?) drowning college boys around the area, and he wants Dustin to help him investigate.

It becomes increasingly clear that neither we nor any of these characters have a coherent idea of the truth of any of these events, Dustin least of all. Our memories are untrustworthy, stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of our lives, or “truths” other people implant in our brains. As we go deeper down this rabbit hole, we realize that  everything we think of as real is fundamentally untrustworthy. Like the characters, how can we even be sure if we are alive or dead?

This story is not for everyone. It is about the ambiguity of reality, so the reader has to be comfortable with an ambiguous story. Chaon lets the readers assemble their own truths out of the component parts he gives us, just as the characters do. I think this is the work of a master craftsman, a great funhouse of a book that I’m sure would reveal more of itself with multiple readings.

Interestings… (March 27)

Gems recently unearthed from my online reading include:

George Saunders on what writers really do when they write is, hands down, the best description I’ve read of the writing process.

If you somehow missed the news, The Handmaid’s Tale is being newly adapted for television and is back on bestseller lists. Here’s Margaret Atwood on what her seminal novel means in the age of Trump.

I saw Get Out over the weekend.This movie works because it’s not only a chilling and entertaining horror movie, but it also comments in a meta way on the tropes of horror movies while exposing the societal issues we truly fear, which is what good horror should do. Here’s an interesting analysis on how Get Out exposes the myth of a postracial America, but beware–it has spoilers galore, and it’s best seeing this movie without know much about it.

Ever wonder why you never hear about Midwestern literature in the same sense as the Southern novel or the Western? I enjoy reading books with a strong sense of place. But I must confess that while I avidly track my reading of Southern, Western, and New England literature, and I can easily see the themes and connections running through those books, I never track my Midwestern reading. It just doesn’t seem to hold as much interest for me, as the Midwest doesn’t seem to be as much of a “character” as these other region are. Why literature and pop culture still can’t get the Midwest right.

Recommended Reading: Underground Airlines

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I highly enjoyed and appreciated Ben H. Winters’s gripping new novel, Underground Airlines, on three levels.

First, it presents a fascinating what-if scenario. In this alternate America, instead of having a civil war, the states came to a compromise that essentially made slavery constitutional into perpetuity. In the present day, slavery continues to be legal in four states–the “hard four,” as they are called–making the United States a political and trade pariah in the world. This hard-to-fathom reality of present-day legal slavery shades every plot point, character motivation, and line of dialogue, presenting a mind-warping vision of America.

Layered on top of this is a highly suspenseful, well-plotted crime story. The combination of tropes from two such disparate genres infuses both with a new energy. Winters has done this before, in his excellent Last Policeman trilogy, but he’s upped his game here. The nameless narrator, once a slave, is now an undercover detective for the US Marshals who tracks fugitive slaves himself, with a hard-boiled sensibility but a nuanced character that gradually reveals itself.

All of this would be enough to make Underground Airlines a terrific read, but Winters has deftly woven piercing social commentary into his alternate history. This vision of America, in which people passionately condone the enslavement of black human beings, is so different from and yet so much like our own society that it forces the reader to re-examine all the assumptions that lie at the bottom of race relations in the United States today. Without preaching or lecturing, Winters makes us question how we view race as it affects poverty, education, incarceration, pretty much everything.

This book enthralled me on all levels. I so hope there will be a sequel, because I would definitely read it.

Recommended Reading: Crooked Heart

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Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans — Ten-year-old Noel Bostock is an odd boy, smart, a reader, independent. He lives with his godmother until she goes senile and then dies. Left bereft, Noel is evacuated with other London children at the start of the Blitz, when Vee takes him in on impulse. Vee lives hand-to-mouth, always with some small scam going, always on the point of eviction; she has a shiftless son and a doddering mother. Together, Noel and Vee are an odd couple, but Noel begins to help Vee improve her scams and their relationship deepens as the bombing of London gets under way.

This is a sweet and charming book about how people need each other, quiet for the most part, and often humorous, which is a take on the Blitz I’ve not yet seen. (I particularly enjoyed Vee’s mother’s letters to the prime minister and the scenes in the crowded shelters during the air raids.) I’m not sure how well it will stick, but I found it a light-hearted and quick read, and an antidote for all the horrifying WWII books I’ve been getting burned out on.

Recommended Reading: Generation Loss

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Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand — Cass Neary was once a young photographer on the burgeoning punk scene who made a name for herself with a ground-breaking book, but a couple of decades later, she’s burnt out, damaged, and still working in the storeroom at the Strand bookstore. A friend gives her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview her idol, Aphrodite Kamestos, who lives like a hermit on a remote island in Maine, and Cass takes it. When she gets there, she finds several people as damaged as she is, and she stumbles onto a mystery.

This is a story with a strong, unusual voice and a memorable, compelling setting, which more than makes up for there not being a lot of actual story, at least not until last third or so. I liked Cass primarily because she is so hard to like, because she does seemingly odd things mainly just to screw with people, and because her narrative voice seems so genuine. She is a person I believe in, not quirky just to be quirky, but quirky because that’s what humans are. Pairing her with the island setting–remote, isolated, difficult both to get to and to get away from–works to take Cass out of her long-time comfort zone and yet situate herself in a place that might feel like home. Toward the end, the story is permeated by a wonderful neo-gothic atmosphere. All of this does make up for the rather breathless (and somewhat unbelievable) wrap-up to the plot, which almost felt beside the point anyway.