Every Friday, we share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week: A harrowing expedition into a mysterious (and hostile) wilderness, a history of the American West from the American Indians who fought to preserve their way of life, a novel as vivid as the most scrupulously observed memoir, and a consummate novel of life in LA.
Ashley: Welcome to Area X, an abandoned piece of land where everyone who attempts to uncover its mysteries quickly ends up mentally altered or dead. Annihilation follows the twelfth “official” expedition to study Area X, consisting of an all-female team of nameless researchers, each identified only be her function: anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist, biologist. The lack of names is intriguing and disconcerting, but we quickly realize it’s the least disturbing part of this ill-fated expedition.
VanderMeer’s descriptions of Area X perfectly capture the haunting beauty of an uninhabited wilderness pocked with ruins and full of secrets, like the tower (or is it a tunnel?) and the lighthouse that the biologist, our narrator, becomes obsessed with. Narrator Carolyn McCormick perfectly captures the biologist’s detached yet deeply compelling voice as well as the eeriness of the atmosphere. It’s all about the subtlety, the way calm surfaces belie menacing secrets that might better have remained undisturbed. Getting past the biologist’s cold facade as she uncovers more and more of the secrets behind Area X makes this one of the most gripping and fascinating psychological thrillers I’ve ever read. It’s also a singularly strange start to a trilogy that will leave you with so many questions you’ll have to start on book two immediately.
Alex P: There’s been a trend in recent literature toward highly detailed and expansive narrative memoirs—Karl Ove Knausgård’s unfortunately titled tome My Struggle being the primary example. While Knausgård borrows novelistic elements to craft memoir, Hadley takes the reverse; her novel Clever Girl so richly depicts the inner life of the protagonist and narrator, Stella, that I often have to remind myself that what I’m reading is, in fact, fiction.
A series of vignettes depicting Stella’s life from childhood through middle adulthood, Clever Girl presents every moment with equal weight and sincerity, as if the author, like her character, doesn’t yet know what will and won’t be significant. It’s a pleasant departure from the standard plot-driven narrative, where it’s often too easy to see what’s coming based on what has been elaborated before. And it’s a far more authentic reflection of how we actually experience our lives, and especially our childhoods; an act as simple as walking from her grandmother’s house to her mother’s without their knowledge can become Stella’s own grand picaresque moment, her first grasp at independence.
Hadley’s voice is perfectly suited to such a style. She doesn’t reach for linguistic pyrotechnics, preferring clarity and simplicity. This, of course, makes those moments when her stylistic prowess shines through all the more dazzling, as when she describes a horse as pissing “voluptuously” into clean hay. It’s in these moments that she captures the world with an accuracy, detail, and poetry far more authentic than what’s found in most memoirs.
Justin: How was the west really won? Dee Brown’s revisionist history challenges Churchill’s famous assertion that history is written by the victors by recounting the story of the frontier in the late 19th century from the perspective of the American Indian tribes who traded, negotiated, and eventually fought to preserve their land and their way of life in the face of the United States’ inexorable westward expansion.
Brown’s history follows a familiar script: broken promises and outright deceptions lead eventually to the brutal extermination of once proud tribes by the American military. Time and time again, Brown turns the story of noble settlers and brave cavalrymen on its head. To see the pattern repeated over and over is as illuminating as it is heartbreaking.
At the same time, Brown tries as best he can to let the American Indians speak for themselves, quoting Red Cloud, Black Kettle, Sitting Bull, and others at length on their desire for peace, their love of their land and people, and their anger and confusion at the duplicity of white traders, settlers, and officers. Though their speeches are sad and stirring, it’s the words of a sympathetic white treaty maker that have stuck with me the most:
“For a mighty nation like us to be carrying on a war with a few straggling nomads, under such circumstances, is a spectacle most humiliating, an injustice unparalleled, a national crime most revolting, that must, sooner or later, bring down upon us or our posterity the judgment of Heaven.”
Mallory: It’s hard to talk about Lightning Field and not compare it to other LA books — it feels like a younger, updated version of Play It As It Lays, a woman’s Less Than Zero. Like Didion’s protagonist, Spiotta’s is a woman who has disconnected from her soul, and who vacillates between looking for it in all the wrong places and just not giving a shit. And like both Ellis and Didion, Spiotta does what LA writers do best: she gloriously, shamelessly celebrates everything that anyone who has ever lived in LA loves, hates, loves to hate, and hates to love about the City of Angels.
- That moment when you first realize that the film industry had to take up residence in LA not because it’s a perfectly temperate walled-in basin at the edge of the world but because of the light.
- The ironic distaste for what’s “cool” (obscure peaty scotches, perfectly curated record collections, and, of course, vintage clothes).
- How using your own feet as a mode of transportation is an act of transgression.
- Bizarre evangelist religions.
- The ubiquity of sex tapes.
- Being obscenely late.
- Dietary restrictions.
Will this book feel like one big inside joke to anyone who hasn’t lived in LA? Maybe, but beneath the blanket of Angeleno details, Lightning Field is a coming-of-age story—even though the protagonist is already married, has a career, and multiple lovers—in the way that LA itself is one big coming-of-age story. Reading it is like putting the parts of ourselves that are undeniably tied to this generation under a microscope together and realizing that they’re not that different from what our parents and brothers and sisters may have felt in the 60s and 70s and 80s. After all, Joan Didion’s LA and Brett Easton Ellis’s LA and Dana Spiotta’s LA aren’t that different, cell phones aside.