The Canon: Books to Read In October

A new Snow White, nasty women, and spooky stories.

By Jordan Bascom, Daley Farr, Emma Gordon, Celia Mattison, Annie Metcalf, and Ann Mayhew

I’m the One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell
She Writes Press
Out: 9/5/2017

Through the frame of parent-daughter relationships and the wisdom of retrospection, Andrea Jarrell, on the verge of becoming an empty-nester,, reflects on her life in this genuine and compelling debut memoir. Growing up in a single-mother household, with an abusive alcoholic father flitting in and out of her life, Jarrell developed a “just us two” mentality early on. While Jarrell’s memoir covers other relationships in her life—with an ex-boyfriend, a best friend, her husband—she continues to come back to her relationships with her parents and the way her insecurities and personal growth are tied to these two relationships.

The result is a self-aware story that likewise inspires inward reflection on the reader’s part. Memoirs are difficult to do successfully because they require the author to convince the reader that their life story is uniquely worth their time. While occasionally Jarrell’s storytelling results in presumptions about the thoughts and motivations of others, her writing is skillful and her honesty is refreshing. She wrestles with complicated feelings like jealousy, shame, and an inexplicable draw to her father despite his abusive behavior.

I’m the One Who Got Away reminds readers that things will get better as we grow older, despite the challenges we face growing up—that we will get better as we grow older, better and more understanding of ourselves and our pasts.

Ann Mayhew

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
Flatiron Books
Out: 9/5/2017

The classic Snow White tale is recast as a feminist declaration in this bold young adult debut.

Princess Lynet chafes at her father’s expectation that she grow up to be exactly like the late Queen, the mother she never knew. One thing Lynet does love about her sheltered life is her stepmother, Mina. The two women share a strong bond, but Lynet is unaware that they share a unique background; the calculating and powerful sorcerer Gregory, Mina’s father, is responsible for both Mina and Lynet’s existence. A magical glass heart keeps Mina alive, and Lynet was crafted out of snow.

As Lynet’s sixteenth birthday approaches, when King Nicholas announces his plan to give Lynet control of the Southern Kingdom, contrary to an old deal with Mina, Mina is incensed. Mina is a native of the Southern Kingdom, and her greatest passion has been restoring that region’s palace and university. When Lynet learns the truth about Mina’s heart, she begins to wonder if their bond was real or imagined, and whether Mina has been plotting something with Gregory all along. Mina, devastated that her stepdaughter is seeing her differently, lashes out in anger. Fearing for her life but determined to win back the only mother she has ever known, Lynet leaves home for the first time in search of a solution—and herself.

The novelty of these princess/stepmother character arcs—two women who want to repair their relationship, not destroy one another—should entice veteran young adult fantasy readers and curious newcomers alike, despite some muddled moments. The unabashed feminism of two heroines who face their fears, reclaim their power, and declare their love for one another is both refreshing and entertaining. The inclusion of a queer romance between the princess and a female surgeon maintains a second, refreshing line of suspense alongside the main plot. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a fast-paced and satisfying addition to the fairy tale remix genre that will hopefully inspire similar thoughtful and diverse female representations in fantasy.

Annie Metcalf

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Graywolf Press
Out: 10/3/2017

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection is a rich work of literary horror that reads both fresh and as an instant classic, with remarkable sentence-level vigor and welcome, straightforward attention to womanhood and queerness.

In this whirlwind story collection, Machado leads readers on a slew of satisfying, spooky romps through settings that feel contemporary and familiar (a shopping mall, a bad house party) but are populated by the surreal. She conjures women with mysterious ribbons tied around their body parts; a stark series of love affairs in the face of a spreading pandemic; a The Shining-meets-Girl-Scout-camp artist residency; and a Law and Order fanfiction novella that transcends mere cleverness with pure humor and compassion.

Her Body and Other Parties casts its net wide, beguiling readers of horror, short stories, novellas, breakneck plots, and excellent sentences, all with a winking, cunning wit. On the surface, the plain ambition of this intensely creepy and sharp collection is exciting, but peeling back the layers of each story only further reveals Machado’s striking balance of momentum and precision. Binding them all together is the author’s expansive imagination and generous intelligence, in which thrills are undergirded by a serious consideration of violence, sex, and gender, turning horror conventions (and literary ones) on their heads.

Daley Farr

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
Out: 10/3/2017

Nasty Women is a collection of essays exploring feminism in the face of the Trump administration with a focus on identity. Unfortunately, the time it takes to publish a book does not lend itself easily to commenting on contemporary politics, and Nasty Women falls short in its selections that feel better suited to the transience of the Internet than immortalization in print. For example, essays that focus on particular policies have facts that are already, or soon will be, out of date, particularly in discussions of healthcare and immigration. In addition, pieces by writers who publish frequently online, including Rebecca Solnit and Jessica Valenti, will be redundant for readers familiar with their work.

The best sections of Nasty Women do not attempt to interpret the news; instead, they take advantage of a book’s slower pace to reveal the ways the Trump agenda exacerbates, deepens, and sheds light on daily traumas. This strategy is particularly compelling in Sarah Hollenbeck’s “As Long As It’s Healthy,” in which she considers how her disability fuels her desire to help others facing oppression, and “X Cuntry,” Randa Jarrar’s elegiac tale of driving across a country where she no longer feels welcome. Also effective are the writers who situate present concerns in an often-missed historical context—Kate Harding examines Susan B. Anthony’s complex relationship to equality, and Mary Kathryn Nagle traces how Native Americans’ rights have been violated by the US government since its founding. Although most of its ideas can be found elsewhere, Nasty Women is a wide-reaching, accessible collection that that would be particularly valuable to new feminists.

 —Emma Gordon
Haunted Nights edited by Lisa Morton and Ellen Datlow
Blumhouse Books/Anchor
Out: 10/3/2017

Just in time for the spookiest of holidays, veteran horror editor Ellen Datlow and the prolific Lisa Morton have teamed up to present this fun and diverse Halloween-themed anthology.

The strongest pieces are those that use Halloween folklore or a Halloween setting as a lens through which to tell other stores. For example, the standout “All Through the Night” by Elise Forier Edie deploys Irish folklore about chan­gelings to comment on the Irish immigration experience in New York City during the Industrial Revolution to heartbreaking success. The haunting “Dirtmouth” by Stephen Graham Jones is ultimately a moving depiction of grief, not just a ghost story.

While it’s clear the editors thought carefully about including a variety of different tales, it’s inevitable that certain topics come up more than once considering the specificity of the holiday. The folklore behind jack-o-lanterns, reiterated a few times by different authors, becomes repetitive, and naturally there is an emphasis on Irish culture due to the holiday’s origins in traditional Irish culture. For these reasons, the most memorable pieces are those that are notably different—“The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little is a fun science-fiction piece, and “A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” by Eric J. Guignard is inspired by Dia de los Muertos folklore.

A celebration of various talented writers (with nearly equal representation of male and female authors) and of a rich holiday, Haunted Nights is an enjoyable read for this month or anytime.

Ann Mayhew

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha, translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
Oneworld Publications
Out: 10/10/2017

Martha Batalha’s impressive debut novel, set in 1940s Rio de Janeiro, probes the inner life of a woman beleaguered by aspirations she knows to be unsuitable for her gender and station.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao presents the eponymous protagonist Euridice struggling to find an outlet for her brilliance in a world that sees her only as a mother and housewife. Splintered by expectations contrary to her desires, she seeks to numb her thoughts with various projects like cooking and sewing. But Euridice’s ambitions only swell as her projects grow beyond the domestic realm, and her husband, convinced he’s a cuckold, would rather quell her enterprises than see her flourish.

An omniscient narrator guides readers through the events and figures of Euridice’s life, a style that feels contrived in several places but also effectively heightens the epic texture of the novel. Every character, large and small, is furnished with a sprawling backstory: we learn of the tragic life of a poet unsuited for motherhood; the life-changing kindnesses of a prostitute-turned-babysitter who takes in a single mother and her child; why Euridice’s sister, Guida, ran away—and why she returns. These tangents delving into family lore and psychic wounds enrich the novel’s expansive historical universe and render even the most unsavory characters sympathetic.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao unfurls a tender portrait of a woman insisting upon a life of her own making, and it’s a wondrous tribute to the quiet resiliency of women coping with myopic traditions.

Jordan Bascom

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker
Feminist Press
Out: 10/10/2017

Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest is a mesmerizing and unsettling experience, hinting at a multitude of layers exploring gender, language, borders, Mexican female writers, and the politics of insanity. Told through a first-person male narrator—with a tone that perfectly imitates that of classic Gothic narratives, i.e. male, self-important and self-involved, sexist—The Iliac Crest is a mind-bending descent into madness resulting from the glimpse of a single hipbone.

The book’s unnamed narrator, a doctor at an isolated sanitarium, is visited one night by two women—one a stranger, who claims to be the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila, seeking something of hers at the sanitarium; the other, a former lover. The two women move in, create an intimacy which includes their own, secret language, and begin harassing the narrator, claiming to know his secret: that he is actually a woman. The man’s quest to defend his masculinity results in his own, eventual, placement in the insane asylum at which he works.

Symbolism abounds in the book; again, there great depths one could dig through, and The Iliac Crest could easily be read over and over with new discoveries. Garza’s writing is gorgeous and precise, tying the various aspects of the book together into what is, at its core, a strange and unforgettable read.

Ann Mayhew

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
Coffee House Press
Out: 10/17/2017

In her gorgeous debut collection The Doll’s Alphabet, Camilla Grudova explores domesticity, capitalism, and reproduction in a world dominated by kitsch and scarcity. There is something dreamlike in Grudova’s construction of these surreal societies, where sewing machines can create ghosts and mermaids can be lured by shiny scraps of tiny foil.

Grudova’s worlds are a distorted mirror image of our own, incorporating aspects of fairy tale and horror without relying on genre. Women transform into wolves and consume their children. Men with spider-like bodies seduce and devour helpless women. Yet it’s how blasé these women are about their circumstances that is most horrifying. They rarely leave their small domestic spheres, happy to subsist on runny eggs warmed on a faulty hotplate. Birth control and reproductive care are all but nonexistent, forcing women to give birth in secrecy and hide their children—or whatever else it is they have inadvertently created.

It’s this imposed normalcy that makes these stories convincing and the world building unique. As hopeless as their worlds are, Grudova’s women are bent on survival, and though their behavior is often unfamiliar, their will and instinct are not. This is a meticulously crafted modern gothic, thoughtful in its explorations of femininity and what can survive in darkness.

Celia Mattison