Every Friday, our editors share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week, a powerful collection of essays about what goes unsaid, a dystopian take on college admissions, and a history of ping pong featuring spies and hippies.
Alex P: A fellow Scribd-er—an engineer, at that—recommended The Unspeakable to me, based on my love of Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories. The allure is definitely similar: between Daum’s personal essays and Lee’s stories, there’s a shared willingness to plumb the predilections and perversions of the intellectual bourgeoisie, arriving at insights as often uneasy as amusing.
As evidenced by the title, the connecting thread between each essay is the exposition of that which we usually keep silent; it’s “about the ways that some of life’s most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion.” Daum splashes right in with “Matricide,” a consideration of her complicated reaction to the death of her mother. Though the essay could easily have been a relatively banal reflection on the curious ways we react to terminal illness and the death of a parent, it evolves into a meditation on how easy it is to dislike those we should love, and how our reactions to the flaws of our parents so often become flaws themselves. Daum writes with candor and lucidity, and her narration is agreeably conversational; I found I could fall into her voice immediately, without undertaking the auditory adjustments I normally must when settling in with a new narrator. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Daum’s insights this weekend—as awkward as such honest reflection can be, there’s a relief inherent in hearing someone say the unsaid.
Mallory: Elisa Albert’s new novel After Birth is many things: A raw examination of childbirth, postpartum depression, loneliness, motherhood, and friendship — in short, life in a woman’s body. But most of all, After Birth is a voice. It’s a voice that’s relatable and real; it’s a voice that’s so honest it’s painful. Its narrator is a real person talking with no pretension, no desire to weave a poetic tale rich with metaphors, plot gimmicks, literary motifs, or philosophy — she’s talking about real life in the way that we experience and talk about real life to each other and to ourselves. She could walk right out of the book and sit next to you in a cafe or on the train or pull up next to you at a red light, and maybe you would notice her or maybe you wouldn’t. She’s fighting the battles that you’re fighting, but she’s brave enough to talk about them, to put them on paper, to make them into a mirror so that everyone can see themselves in them. The New York Times calls this book “a truth baby” and “as essential as The Red Badge of Courage,” and it is absolutely both.
Niree: Chuck Palahniuk, if you don’t know already, is a sick genius. So sick, in fact, that this earliest book of his was rejected by publishers for being too disturbing. But beneath the grotesque language of this riotous trip through hospitals, burning mansions, and transgender support groups is an expert exploration of the allure and consequences of superficiality, as well as our insatiable desire to love and be loved. Warning: the text is rife with weapons and multiple layers of deception.
It’s hard to capture the shock of reading Invisible Monsters for the first time, but Anna Fields does a phenomenal job. Combined with Palahniuk’s prose, Fields’s ferocious, frenetic narration acts as yet another mirror to the darkness within us all. Despite what we fear may be lurking in the reflection, it’s worth a look, a listen.
Ashley: Only after I started reading The Testing did I realize how apt my timing was. In Joelle Charbonneau’s YA debut, kids study hard for the privilege of being selected for a dystopian version of the SATs and the chance to be selected to continue their education at The University. The University needs to pick the best and brightest candidates who will go on to create innovative technology to help humanity survive the blighted landscape of North America after a devastating war. But how do you know which teens should attend University? By setting up a grueling set of challenges that leaves only 20 applicants surviving, duh.
Okay, that premise may seem a bit absurd, but then, so is our truly absurd college admissions system, and I was so totally absorbed in Charbonneau’s world and the writing that it doesn’t even matter. (Besides, nobody reads YA dystopias for their plausibility.) The main character, Cia, balances brains, bravery, and kindness during the Testing, even as her dream of attending The University turns into a nightmare. In the glut of YA dystopians, The Testing is at the top of its class.
Justin: How did a pastime usually associated with frat houses and unfinished basements come to herald a once-in-a-generation political realignment? In his rich and utterly engrossing history, Nicholas Griffin unspools this improbable story, from the game’s humble origins as a postprandial diversion (if you think ping pong is an undignified name, consider “whiffwhaff” and “gossima”), to its surprisingly deliberate expansion by an eccentric British communist who saw in this “faintly ridiculous” sport an opportunity to spread communism around the world, to, finally, the small group of American and Chinese athletes who became the catalyst for the United States’ rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.
Griffin tells the story with a novelist’s flair for drama and characterization (no surprise, given that Griffin is also a novelist). The cast is as colorful and varied as a Pynchon novel or Coen brothers film: self-aggrandizing hippies, ideological aristocrats, calculating politicians, communist assassins and more all play a role. It’s enough to make me want to dust off the old paddles and get a little game of whiffwhaff going.