Heading to London in the near future? Stop by the British Library’s new Terror and Wonder, which bills itself as the UK’s biggest Gothic exhibition in history. To whet your appetite, you can read thisGuardian piece by Neil Gaiman, in which the Sandman author names Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the apex of Gothic fiction. Related: our own Hannah Gersen on Frankenstein and the “Year Without a Summer.”
To give a brief, vague summary, this book is about a girl born into a diseased situation — literally and metaphorically — and how she uses her sexuality to cope with it. The sentences remain broken and inarticulate throughout the novel, even after the narrator is born, grows up, and comes of age. This novel does not shy away from the world’s cruelty. There were times when I had to look away from the page despite the opaque-ness of the prose. There were times when I was worried for the physical well being of the narrator. There were times when I had to disengage from the story, because the scenes of abuse and violence were too harsh. It’s not the kind of book that makes you cry; it’s the kind of book that shakes you up. While reading this novel, I had several dreams about terrible things happening to my son. Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it.
If Labor Day had existed when I was pregnant, I am honestly not sure if it would have helped me to answer my doctor’s question or left me feeling even more confused, but I’m certain I would have read every single one of these essays anyway. Most birth stories I know were delivered second-hand; they’re a little fuzzy around the edges, a little watered-down, and often simplified so as not to frighten. But there’s nothing watered-down about the stories in this volume: they are blunt, wistful, confessional, wise, loving, sorrowful, witty, and sometimes eerie.
This is a novel about obsessive love and at some point during my reading of it, I became obsessed with the story in a way that surprised me. You could say my experience mirrored Cress’s own love affair, which starts out simply and easily but then somehow turns into a life-altering event that keeps Cress captive in the mountains for years. Although I wouldn’t characterize Off Course as a life-altering novel, it did cast a very strong spell. The fairy tale theme is pervasive and like all good fairy tales, there is a sense of unease, of darkness unseen. Cress describes her love as “a sad old king,” the arrival of spring is “a clear flammable gas in the air,” and a pocketknife is found buried in the dirt, like a bad omen.
"Set in the New York art world, The Blazing World tells the story of Harriet Burden, an accomplished, middle-aged artist so frustrated by her lack of stature that she arranges for three younger male artists to show her work as their own. Burden believes her artwork will be better received if exhibited by young men, rather than an aging widow.
"This year the books I liked best fell into two categories: the ones I read in a rush, squeezing in pages every spare moment or staying up late to finish them; and the ones I read slowly over several months, so that the books became my faithful companions. I tend to read three or four books at a time and this year what often happened is that one book would reveal itself to be a tortoise, and would live on my nightstand for weeks, while the hares (and whatever animal is between a hare and a tortoise — a cat?) raced by. As someone who gravitates toward “slow” books and movies, my sympathies lie with the tortoises, but I have to admit it was exciting to come across so many books that I couldn’t put down."