Moby Dick; or, The Whale

The stormy blue cover shows a small boat being capsized by a giant whale.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to absolutely no one.
– anonymous review of Moby Dick

by Ben H.

Moby Dick; or, The Whale, Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, is a perfect summer read. It’s long – good for those endless summer days at the beach. It’s a great conversation starter – good for extra time spent with family. It’s the source of many pop culture references – great for the extra entertainment consumption that sometimes happens in the summer. Lastly, it’s a great book full of memorable lines.  

Ishamel, of “call me Ishmael” fame, is the insightful and piquant narrator of this tragic seafaring saga of revenge. He joins Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, because he’s hit the doldrums. He tells us, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…I quietly take to the ship.” As one does when one feels down, Ishmael makes for Massachusetts and becomes a whaler.  

If he’s too interested in the semantics of whaling, I forgive him because he’s a fabulous companion, consistently thoughtful and funny. It’s through Ishmael that we meet the rest of the crew: Ahab, the peg-legged monomaniacal captain bent on revenge; Pip, the cabin-boy who loses himself in the vastness of the ocean; Starbuck, the weathered, faithful first mate; Stubb, the philosophizing, chain-smoking second mate; Flask; the steady, simple third mate; Fedallah, Ahab’s harpooner and “evil shadow;” Queequeg, Ishmael’s best friend, “wife,” and harpooner; Tashtego, Stubb’s harpooner and the one who falls into the squishy head of a dead whale; etc.  

Moby Dick has a great narrator, a wonderful crew of characters, and plenty of Shakespearean drama. Starbuck has a soliloquy worthy of Hamlet; Stubb and Flask have Dogberry-level banter about whales and Fedallah. Stubb also takes a turn as Mercutio when he has a Queen Mab moment. After Stubb describes his dream in detail, Flask responds with an appropriate, “I don’t know; it seems a sort of foolish to me, tho.'” Anyone who bores a friend, family member, or coworker with the details of a dream deserves the Flask treatment. 

Speaking of dreams, the giant squid sighting is a brief but memorable episode. Melville calls the squid the “Anak” of the cuttlefish tribe. His reference to a race of giants is one of many biblical references. With one word, Melville describes the squid and sets an ancient and mysterious tone.

Another perfectly haunting episode happens when Ahab works the crew into a fervor on the quarterdeck. He stabs a gold coin high into the mast, promises it to the one who first sights the white whale, and gives a demonic revenge speech. His speech, and the healthy amount of grog he sloshes around, sets off pandemonium and “infernal orgies.” Starbuck, too stoic to partake in such revelry, remarks, “heathen crew…the white whale is their demogorgon…” Try googling demogorgon without getting lost in an avalanche of Stranger Things fan sites. Starbuck, ever the ray of sunshine, adds, “Oh, life! ‘tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee.” 

I’ve highlighted a few episodes to provide you, gentle reader, with trenchant examples of the mood of the novel; it is equal parts mystical, dark and humorous, and quotidian. 

The narrative falls into a pattern: look for a whale, find a whale, kill a whale (unsurprisingly, Moby Dick is not safe for animal lovers). The Pequod also encounters a surprising number of other whaling ships: Jereboam, Rachel, Jungfrau, Delight, Rose Bud, etc. The suspense builds as Ahab begins to hear of Moby Dick sightings from the other captains. Melville continues to up the tension by scattering prophecies and Julius Caesar-level augurs of doom throughout the text.  

As I mentioned in the introduction to this interminably long book review, Moby Dick casts a long shadow. For example, in the The X Files (the best show of all time), Scully’s dad’s nickname for her is Starbuck. Once you’ve read Moby Dick, you’ll make a fun connection between Mulder and Ahab. Is Scully the Starbuck to Mulder’s Ahab? Will Mulder’s quest doom them both? 

Another fun example: Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1975 film about a giant bloodthirsty shark. At one point, the brave but foolish men hunting a giant shark in a tiny boat sing a little song – first sung by the crew of the Pequod:  

Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies! / Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain! 

One last reference is a little out there, but for those of you who play videogames, I feel that the entire catalog of Dark Souls games is rife with thematic references to Moby Dick. If the pop culture references aren’t enough to draw you in, there are tons of one-liners perfect for inspiring the armchair philosopher in all of us: 

  • “But clear truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter” 
  • “Never dream with thy hand on the helm!” 
  • “Away, and bring us napkins!” 
  • “Oh! My friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life…” 
  • “Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?” 

My wife told me not to spoil the ending, so I won’t. If you want to know, set sail for your local branch and pick up a copy! If you’ve made it through this Chapter Chats review, you can make it through Moby Dick!

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Devil House

The cover of the book shows an old house with two turrets silhouetted in black and white against a black background. Beneath it, against a white background, is a red outlined reflection of the house's shape, illustrated to resemble a vampire bat. The red and black lettering is in a Gothic style and gives the cover a retro, pulpy feel.

It’s changed since you were here, or else it hasn’t
It was special, it was deadly
It was ours and then it wasn’t

– The Mountain Goats

By Ben H.

An entertaining book full of mystery, empathy, and suspense, Devil House is also a thoughtful examination of authorial responsibility. John Darnielle excels at building meaning by layering stories. As the frontman of The Mountain Goats, he’s a storytelling genius. He’s magical and efficient. He’s an all-time great songwriter.

Speaking of authorial responsibility, I should state upfront that I think Darnielle is a better songwriter than he is novelist. Devil House would have benefited from heavy editing. That being said, I like the book and I consider my responsibility as the author of this review now satisfied.

Devil House is the story of true crime writer Gage Chandler. Chandler fictionalizes true stories for money, the job of all novelists, really, but he isn’t Thomas Wolfe writing about Asheville. Chandler writes the new Hulu documentary about a mother who poisoned her kids or a couple who killed boarders and buried them under the hyacinths. Chandler writes books that are adapted for the small screen and become the must watch shows of the week. He approaches the gruesome devil house murders of Evelyn Gates (the greedy landlord) and Marc Buckler (the sleezy real estate mogul wannabe) the same way he approached previous cases, but things get complicated.

The titular house is the center of the novel and serves as a cipher for all the characters. Chandler, Buckler, Gates, Seth, Alex, and Derrick all revolve around its foundations in one way or another. It’s Chandler’s next project; it’s work. Buckler and Gates see it as an asset or potential asset. High school students Derrick, Seth, and Alex use the abandoned house as a hideout. They make it a castle. It’s a safe place to sleep at night. Many of the highlights of the book occur when Chandler describes the boys and their relationship with the house.

Chandler’s methods are extreme. He’s the Daniel Day Lewis of true crime writers. Joaquin Phoenix ain’t got nothing on Gage Chandler. He lives where the crimes were committed (he literally moves into the building known as devil house). He holds items held by those involved as if they were talismans. He haunts eBay looking for paraphernalia tangentially connected to the case. He becomes the victims. He becomes the murderer. Chandler recreates lives based on evidence left behind. He imagines conversations and relationships based on the contents of a junk drawer. He establishes character and personality based on notebooks full of doodles. He gives his characters depth. He uses empathy to create details and narratives for his characters; but has he cold-heartedly monetized empathy?

While living in devil house, an old case that involves the murder of two students by their high school teacher, which Chandler turned into the book The White Witch of Morro Bay, comes back to haunt him. He receives a devastating letter from someone questioning his depiction of a certain character. Chandler prides himself on being fair to his characters, but how can you be fair to someone’s son when to you they are just a character you have partially fleshed out? His resolve shaken, he questions his methods and his career.

For those thinking that what this book sounds like it needs is a medieval section in middle English, you’re in luck! For me, this strange interlude emphasized the depth of the world-building that Derrick, Seth, and Alex were doing. It’s like I always say, “whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” I also always say that if you can cut the section in middle English from the book you wrote in 2022, you should.

As in Wolf in White Van, Darnielle moves back and forth in time, weaving patterns and stacking stories. The payoff is well worth it. I reread the reveal a couple of times because it was so satisfying. The obvious takeaway for me was a critique of true crime books, shows, and movies. Devil House also offers a commentary on how society treats its vulnerable members. Whatever meanings you find inside Devil House, I think you’ll enjoy exploring most of its pages.

Harbor me when I’m hungry
Harbor me when I’m hunted

– The Mountain Goats

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

A circle filled with the white "negative" space of different sorts of ferms and plants against a green and red background sits above the title and author.

by Ben H.

What can a casual reader take away from Lucy Jones’s 2020 book Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World and its Ability to Heal Body and Soul? I’d like to say I’m not just a casual reader, but I am. Losing Eden isn’t as entertaining as Rhythm of War, as helpful as The Korean Vegan (I can’t stop making the spicy and crunchy garlic tofu!), or as cathartic as rewatching The Return of the King. But, it’s totally worth your while!

Losing Eden is informative, thought-provoking, and well researched. I found inspiration in its pages. I found it comforting and distressing. Sometimes it’s comforting to read a whole book about how the world is hurtling toward disaster instead of dozens of headlines, short articles, op-eds, and social media posts. Reading Losing Eden made me feel like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, except I have a daughter and I don’t pour Pepto-Bismol in my whiskey.

Losing Eden is glued together with memoir paste, but it’s mostly an academic, research-based treatise on the importance of time spent outdoors, the immense value of plants and animals, and the urgent need to protect the natural world. Jones uses climate change, mental health, socio-economics, and racial equity as reasons to care about this green world. She also references dozens, if not hundreds, of studies, books, and research projects running the gamut from the social effects of green space in Chicago to the importance of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval area in Poland and Belarus. 

She cites Robert Pyle’s theory of the extinction of experience. Pyle’s general idea is that the less we interact with nature, the less we will care about it. Extinction leads to extinction of experience and then to more extinction. Jones writes, “Over the past fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish have fallen by 60 percent worldwide.” Passages like that are distressing.  

Jones explores the possible emotional impact of spending time outdoors. The answer might be in the dirt. A bacteria found in dirt, mycobacterium vaccae, has been linked to increased happiness. In 2004, oncologist Mary O’Brien created, “a serum that contained M. vaccae, a species of bacteria found in soil.” It did not have the desired effect, a cure for cancer, “but, strangely, those who received the immunization reported feeling happier.” Dr. Christopher Lowry was separately working on a similar research project and found that ,“mice injected with the bacterium exhibited fewer anxiety- or fear-like behaviour and were 50 percent less likely to have stress-induced colitis.” It’s dangerous to label nature as a panacea for mental health issues, but I think Jones makes a compelling argument, while being careful not to stray into an irresponsible reliance on nature as a magical cure.  

Jones also mentions chronic inflammation and its connection with mental health. She writes, “people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders have been found to have higher levels of inflammation biomarkers.” Cytokines are a biomarker for inflammation, and “studies show that just two hours In a forest can significantly lower cytokine levels in the blood, soothing inflammation. This could partly be caused by exposure to important microorganisms.” If you’ve never heard of shinrin-yoku, this book is for you.

She also approaches the topic from a socioeconomic angle. She writes that “people in lower socio-economic groups or from racial and ethnic minorities usually have less access to green space and parks than those who are white and affluent.” She traces this issue back to the 17th century and the enclosure acts in England: “the practice of enclosing land from the British people began in earnest with the passing of over 5,200 Enclosure Acts between 1604 and 1914, which fenced off 6.8 million acres of previously common land.” I particularly loved this part of her book because the enclosure acts were an integral part of my thesis on pastoral poetry. If you’re ever in the UMBC library, check out: “Borrowed Weeds: Courtiers in Disguise in Renaissance Pastoral.” I guarantee you’ll be the first person to ever check it out.  

Jones saved one of her most compelling arguments for last. She cites the research of Professor Rich Mitchell from the University of Glasgow. His idea of “equigenesis” is full of real-world applications. The basic idea is that “If an environment is equigenic, it may reduce the gap between the rich and the poor by weakening the link between socio-economic inequality and health inequality.” Prof. Mitchell realized that the massive changes needed to address inequity weren’t going to happen, so he searched for other solutions. A 2015 study looking at more than 20,000 people in 34 European countries showed that, “access to nature was the one characteristic that reduced socio-economic inequality in mental well-being (by 40 percent).” 

Her evidence is compelling. Jones accumulated loads of research and attacked the question from many angles. I had a lot of takeaways from her book. I should definitely encourage my daughter to play in the dirt. I should garden. I should spend time outdoors. Should I buy a chicken to diversify my microbiota like Jones did? Maybe? 

I’ll definitely encourage my daughter to continue to watch squirrels, look for the moon during the day, and watch for chubby hawks in the trees.  

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The black cover serves as a backdrop to delicate repeating patterns. A second white incomplete circular design on the bottom half draws your eye to a vanishing point.

By Ben H.

Foundation, the first book in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, is a sci-fi touchstone. I’m sure it’s been called a towering work of genius or a staggering work of brilliance. More importantly, it’s just been adapted for the small screen (I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve heard good things). The story’s three protagonists are a scientist, a politician, and a trader. Asimov explores big scientific, political, and economic ideas, and his protagonists give the reader a clue.

Asimov speculates that we will one day be able to predict the future using science. Psychohistory is born from the blending of (I bet you can guess) psychology and history. It’s used to predict the movements of large groups of people (the masses of humanity living their quietly desperate lives). We meet Hari Seldon, the most accomplished psychohistorian the galaxy has ever seen, on the planet of Trantor. Seldon tells Gaal Dornick, the scientist protagonist, that the current and seemingly stable galactic empire will fall and the galaxy will be plunged into thousands of years of chaos and barbarism. Seldon has a plan that, if executed properly, will save the galaxy thousands of years of chaos. Don’t get too attached to Gaal. Asimov moves through narrators pretty quickly. 

According to the plan, Seldon establishes the first Foundation on the remote planet Terminus. He tasks scientists and academics with compiling an encyclopedia of the galaxy’s vast knowledge. They attack their goal with fervor. Meanwhile, the rest of the galactic empire is resting on its laurels and starting to collapse. 

Fast forward a few decades and Salvador Hardin is the next narrator (the political narrator). Hardin is a very 60s sci-fi cool customer, space cowboy narrator. At this point Seldon reappears as a hologram (being dead) to provide hints or tips to keep the galaxy moving in the right direction, according to his plan. Hardin, the mayor of the planet Terminus, helps the planet through the first Seldon crisis, which is a time identified as a key turning point in the future of the galaxy. Each crisis must happen a certain way for the plan to be successful. 

The last narrator is Hober Mallow, a trader working for The Foundation. At this point, The Foundation produces technological marvels that they trade to the surrounding planets. Most traders spread the religion Hardin created and tied to The Foundation’s technology to new planets. The new planets buy the technology, sometimes accept the new religion, and become regular customers. The traders make money and the surrounding planets become dependent on The Foundation. 

Foundation is full of big ideas. Bloated bureaucracies, social elites, centralized governments, hyper-specialized professionals, cynical capitalists, zealous religious fanatics, and downtrodden regular folk populate the pages. It’s a thought-provoking story of the collapse of an empire.

Foundation is also available from HCLS in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A cover of stripes, from top to bottom: yellow with the eyes and nose of a young girl's face; Light blue with a dive bombing plane reads A Tale; deeper blue with waves reads For The; mint green with a red book read Time Being; yellow with a brown field and pine trees

by Ben H.

“Time itself is being and all being is time…In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” 

Dōgen

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a lovely book. Part meditation on time and presence, part drama, and part mystery, Ozeki balances her story between two narrators connected by a diary written in the shell of a repurposed copy of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust. 

Nao is the teenage author of the diary. She now lives near Tokyo with her mom and dad. Nao faces bullying, parental drama, homesickness for California, and severe depression. Ruth, a novelist, now lives with her husband on a remote island in British Columbia. She faces writer’s block and homesickness for Manhattan.

Nao’s diary washes ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and Ruth becomes fascinated with it. Nao’s diary is witty, emotional, and bracingly frank. Ozeki phenomenally recreates the way a diary juxtaposes the quixotic and the realistic, the banal and the devastating, the humorous and the tragic. Nao is viciously bullied at school. The bullying is brutal, both physically and emotionally. Nao reports it to her diary in a light tone, but it’s heavy stuff. Suicide is also a common topic in the book, as multiple characters plan to kill themselves. Nao finds refuge from the bullies when she is left with her 104-year-old grandma Jiko, a feminist Buddhist nun, in a crumbling monastery in the mountains for the summer (ghostly hijinks ensue).

Ruth (the character not the author) fills her chapters with lovely descriptions of the natural world. In her displacement, Ruth doesn’t face anything as dramatic as Nao does, but Ruth is out of her element. She’s still searching for her identity on her new rural island. One of my favorite parts is when Ruth takes another diary from the Hello Kitty lunchbox (Nao’s great uncle Haruki #1’s secret diary written in French to hide it from his commander in the army) to Benoit to be translated. Benoit manages the dump on the island and has carved out a perfect little niche for himself, complete with a library full of books rescued from the garbage. Managing a dump on a remote island might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds nice to me.

In some structural ways, A Tale for the Time Being reminds me of Don Quixote (Ozeki even makes a Don Quixote reference). There are embedded narratives for everyone. There are hidden diaries and lost books and real texts and fake texts. Nao even reports in her diary on the texts she sends to Jiko while writing her entry. The transference of meaning between all of the texts, the way they bring new elements to the story or change the context, creates a rich background for the main thrust of the narrative. I totally escape reality when I get lost in a story buried in another story. Instead of getting immersed in ONE book, I’m immersed in a letter reported in a diary reported in another diary reported to me through a character in a book. I’m gone.

Ozeki, a Buddhist priest, fills the book with quotations from Buddhist masters. Even Ozeki’s structure, the interlinking stories, illustrates Dōgen’s ideas of the connectedness of the universe. Nao explores time in her diaristic musings, as does Ruth. In Ruth’s case, she finds herself searching for lost time in a way I think we can all relate to. The internet, the great thief of time, is one of the main culprits behind Ruth’s writer’s block. Ozeki wields form, font, and white space to visually represent how It feels to waste time online, as only a person who remembers a time before the internet can.   

Sometimes you read a book and you and the book just click. A Tale for the Time Being was one of those books for me. If none of the things in my review have piqued your interest, A Tale for the Time Being also features at least one ghost, a magical crow, an episode in the multiverse, and a cute cat.

A Tale for the Time Being is available from HCLS in print format, as an audiobook on CD, and as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

 

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

A young woman faces to the right, wearing black clothes and a fluttery grey cape holds a knife in each hand looking determinedly ahead, with a shadowy urban landscape full of towers behind her.
The cover of Mistborn: The Final Empire.

by Ben H.

What happens if the chosen one fails? What if the hero fails to defeat the dark lord? 

Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy imagines what that could look like.  

Full disclosure, I haven’t finished the trilogy yet, but I love the first two books so much (The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension) that I can’t resist writing a review. I’ll write a retraction if the third book is garbage (but it won’t be). 

A thousand years ago, someone gained access to a source of power, defeated something called the Deepness, and… remade the world into a dull, cruel, lifeless, ash-strewn place. He is now the Lord Ruler and has ruled over the world for a thousand years in what he ominously calls the Final Empire.  

The nobility live in finery in castles and vast manors, and the skaa are their hopeless and ragged servants. There is no middle class. Skaa are treated as subhuman.  

Vin is our protagonist. She is a half-skaa street urchin, thief, and con-artist. A mysterious thief named Kelsier rounds up a thieving crew for one huge job. He collects those with magical abilities and Vin rounds out his team.  

The magical systems are Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy. Allomancy is the most common and the most relevant for this review. Magic users ingest tiny amounts of metals (like copper, steel, or gold) and “burn” them in order to gain abilities. Some metals make you powerfully strong, some metals allow you to pull and push against other metals, basically giving you the ability to fly or hover, and some metals allow you to influence people’s emotions. 

The books mostly take place in Luthadel, a city that feels like Dickensian London seen through an Orwellian lens. There are elements that feel steampunky to me (Yes, I do think steampunky is a totally acceptable adjective). The main thrust of the plot for The Final Empire is the preparation for Kelsier’s big heist. À la Ocean’s Eleven, we slowly get introduced to each character and each character’s ability. 

Once the crew is assembled, Kelsier reveals that the scope of the heist is grand beyond imagining. Sanderson does a phenomenal job writing action sequences using his magic systems. They are a blast to read with real page-turning action.

If you read Mistborn, pay attention to the theme of disguise and appearance. I’d argue that clothing and dissimulation are major themes. Can the clothes you wear change how you feel? Change your personality? Change your characteristics? Are you a fraud if you look like something you don’t feel you are? What happens when you start to feel like the thing you’ve been pretending to be? Vin and company wrestle with a lot of these questions as the story unfolds. 

Speaking of epic-fantasy (smooth segue and recommendation alert), Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series is incredible (and set in the same extended universe as Mistborn). 

He is also the man responsible for finishing Robert Jordan’s sprawling The Wheel of Time series. Sanderson wrote the last three books of the 14-book series, and he wrapped up the epic story beautifully. Although it took me about 10 years to finish, you might be able to finish the books before the series premieres on Amazon on November 19.  

If you have the fantasy itch, try Sanderson’s Mistborn books. You won’t be disappointed. If you are, come talk to me at the Central Branch and I’ll try to convince you that you’re wrong. 

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Crying in H Mart

Against a red background, two sets of chopsticks hold noodles in long swoop that looks like an H.

by Ben H.

I’d be remiss to write about Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart without mentioning Psychpomp, the 2016 Japanese Breakfast album that served as a preview for the memoir that debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times‘ best sellers List. Passages describing the creation of the album are brief, but lyrics are scattered throughout the memoir like Easter eggs.  

Zauner recorded the album in Eugene in the months after her mother died. Zauner’s mother is on the album cover, reaching toward the camera. It’s a rad shoegaze album full of great lyrics, and it’s my 2-year-old daughter’s favorite album. Kiki’s been listening to it since she was born. She points to this album cover when she wants to bop: 

Two Asian woman look down into the camera, one reaching out. They are under a blue sky and wind is blowing their hair.

Zauner, who was born in Seoul; raised in Eugene, Oregon; went to school in Philadelphia; and now lives in Brooklyn has a real Maryland vibe (whatever that means). Maybe it’s just me, but I felt close to Zauner after reading her book. It’s honest and intimate (I know that’s a book cover cliché and I still can’t help myself). 

The memoir is incredible. Her mom was only 56 when she died, and Zauner had a complicated relationship with her. She illustrates their relationship by detailing a series of events from childhood conversations to her mom’s final word. The book is only around 250 pages, but Zauner uses anecdotes and conversations like a pointillist uses points to create a full portrait. Her mother is down-to-earth, glamorous, pragmatic, whimsical, frustrating, mysterious, and lovely.  

Zauner writes about eating food, making food, storing food, watching videos of other people make food (Maangchi gets her own chapter), and it’s all great. The passage where she makes her first real batch of kimchi is one of my favorites. Food is the constant in her relationship with her parents: “What they lacked in high culture, they made up for by spending their hard-earned money on the finest of delicacies. My childhood was rich with flavor – blood sausage, fish intestines, caviar. They loved good food, to make it, to seek it, to share it, and I was an honorary guest at their table.” 

After her mother’s cancer diagnosis, her mental fantasies to cure her mom are heartbreaking. We’ve all tried to barter with the universe or with God to get something, and in that vein, Zauner writes, “I spent an hour on the treadmill. In my head I played a game with the numbers. I thought to myself, if I run at eight for another minute, the chemo will work. If I hit five miles in half an hour she’ll be cured.”  

The details of Zauner’s childhood in Eugene and her visits with family in Seoul are highlights, but I found myself returning to the intimate moments between Zauner and her mother. Crying in H Mart is officially going to be a movie; I can’t wait for the screen adaptation, but I think it’s going to be a tearjerker. 

You can place the book on hold, as many other folks want to read it right now, but it’s worth the wait. Also available as an eBook and eAudiobook.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Death in Her Hands

The cover is in green, with the semi-profile of a woman in light blue; its edges are jagged as if pixilated on a flickering TV screen. At the very bottom of her profile, where the chin would be, is a tiny human silhouette in black, facing her as if approaching.

By Ben H.

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body” 

Vesta, the amazingly unstable 72-year-old narrator of Death in Her Hands, is my favorite of all of Ottessa Moshfegh’s growing roster of eccentric narrators. The main conceit of Death in Her Hands is that Vesta must solve a murder mystery. Before we know anything else about Vesta, we learn that she found a note in the woods (quoted above) and believes that she needs to solve the mystery (there is no body).  

Based solely on that note, Vesta envisions a detailed backstory for Magda and the murderer. She imagines one plausible idea after another and adds details until she’s created a truth that is incredibly real to her. A wild journey, Death in Her Hands occurs mostly inside Vesta’s head. Moshfegh immerses the reader so far into Vesta’s isolated, almost solipsistic, world that it’s jarring when Vesta interacts with anyone other than her dog Charlie. She must interact with others because her investigation takes her all around her small Northeastern town. She visits the public library, picks up a hitchhiker, visits odd neighbors, runs from wild animals, and finds clues. As she finds clues about the murder, she drops clues about her own mysterious past.

The book is a murder mystery, and Moshfegh plays with that genre and those tropes, but it is also a psychological drama. Moshfegh is an accomplished writer who gives the reader enough information to know that Vesta is not trustworthy, but not enough information to completely dismiss the murder as a figment of her imagination. At times Death in Her Hands reads more like Woolf’s The Waves or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49Vesta’s thoughts carry us like waves; and her investigation doesn’t always make sense, but it always almost makes sense.

It’s easy to believe Vesta. She’s likable and very persuasive.
You almost believe that she’s solved the mystery! 
…Then you realize that you aren’t sure that there ever was a note. 

The book explores mental health, aging, abusive relationships, and isolation. Those don’t sound like cheery topics, but Vesta is a funny narrator, and she makes it an enjoyable ride: “My God, he could be crouched behind the kitchen door, and there you’d be, standing in your socked feet and bathrobe, agog at the knife glinting in the rack. Had you used it to chop onions? Had you forgotten that you’d wandered down for a midnight snack, left the knife out, et cetera? Were you still dreaming? Was I?” 

Moshfegh is a master of cultivating a dreamlike quality (she nailed it in McGlue as well). When everything seems off, it’s hard to know if anything is real. If you like dark, brilliant, insightful, inventive writing, I think you’d enjoy Death in Her Hands.

P.S. This is ostensibly a review of Death in Her Hands, but it’s really a recommendation to go read ANY Ottessa Moshfegh (she’s incredible). If you’re looking to have a weird weekend, pick up a bunch of Moshfegh from your local library and get lost in her wild world.  Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Another Country

The Penguin Classic cover features red cut-outs of figures layered over a neutral background.
Penguin Classic edition

by Ben H.

“Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous” 

James Baldwin

Another Country is a novel that’s more like a play or a poem. Short descriptions set scenes like flashes of light, and dialogue propels us through the story. James Baldwin is brilliant and empathetic; his depiction of humanity is beautiful. Passages that make you weep are followed immediately by passages that make you laugh. Dark episodes in the cold rain follow erotic passages in warm apartments. Baldwin’s relentless prose attack zigs and zags at the reader, and he never lets up. He pulls the threads of the tangled ball of relationships at the center of the novel tighter and tighter. Another Country is addictive and almost unbearably tense. 

Baldwin explores race, gender, sexuality, religion, art, and life in America in the 1950s through the interactions of a group of memorable characters. First, we meet Rufus Scott, a black jazz drummer, stumbling out of a movie theater in New York, disheveled and desperate. His experience as a black man in America is really the central pillar of the story. His wretched love/hate relationship with Leona, a white woman from the south, ruins both of their lives and sets a grim tone for a serious book. Vivaldo, a white man, is arguably the main character. Vivaldo is a struggling writer and Rufus’ best friend. Vivaldo is everywhere. He felt to me like a stand-in for James Baldwin himself.

France offers the reader a brief respite from the grimness of New York. We first meet Eric and his boyfriend Yves on a French beach. The passages set abroad are lovely and warm, while the scenes in New York are often brutal and freezing or unforgiving and sizzling. Baldwin’s depiction of France juxtaposed with that of America neatly illustrates the way Baldwin, a gay black man, felt in France versus the way he felt in the United States.

The many protagonists provide a narrative richness I really loved. Besides Rufus and Vivaldo, Cass (maybe my favorite character), Ida (Rufus’s sister and an incredible character), and Eric (in his own way the heartbeat of the book) are the other main players in this story of relationships and race. The New York Times compared Another Country to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and I think it’s a great comparison. Baldwin also brings the furious pace of a sax solo to his poetic novel. If you want to know what it’s like to read Another Country, listen to “Countdown” off of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Another Country really does have a momentous heft to it. Baldwin, like an alchemical wordsmith, achieved something magical with everyday material. On the surface, it’s just the story of a few overlapping relationships during the 50s. But by the time you turn the last page, it feels like you’re holding something vital in your hands. I really do believe that books like this can change the way people view and treat one another.

If you’ve already read Another Country, visit HCLS and see if we have a Baldwin that you haven’t yet read (or if we can recommend something similar). If you haven’t read Another Country, you have money in the bank. You can’t go wrong with Mr. Baldwin.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Wolf in White Van

The book cover has the title in turquoise blue against a white background, the letters forming a labyrinthine maze.

By Ben H.

When I was a child, my mind wandered a lot, and most often it would wander to the dark places, as though drawn there by instinct 

Sean Phillips

I am a huge fan of John Darnielle, the author of Wolf in White Van. He records music as The Mountain Goats and released two stellar albums in 2020. New albums aside, the album that matches best with Wolf in White Van is 2012’s Transcendental Youth; more on that later. 

More pertinent to this review, John Darnielle is an accomplished novelist and a 2020 judge for the National Book Awards. His 2014 novel Wolf in White Van, also available from HCLS as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive, is what this review is really all about. 

Wolf in White Van is kind of a tragic novel filled with darkness, piercing insights, humor, and a lot of unanswered or unanswerable questions. Is Sean Phillips, the protagonist of the book, the titular wolf? That is the question that I kept asking myself after I finished reading it.  

Present-day Sean lives alone. A traumatic event in his past left him disfigured and dependent on daily visits from a nurse. He is self-employed as the creator and manager of a pen and paper role-playing game called Trace Italian. Young Sean hatched the idea for a role-playing survival game that participants play through the mail during his long stay in the hospital recovering from the event.

Players pay Sean to explore his vision of a post-apocalyptic future where they chase the rumor of a safe haven called Trace Italian. Monthly or weekly they send him their moves and he tells them what happens next and gives them options for their next move. Two of Sean’s most dedicated players recently suffered a tragic accident because of decisions they made inspired by his game, and he faces the real-life consequences of their actions.

Young Sean is an enigma. Friends and family demand logic, reason, motivation, and rational explanations for his eccentric behavior, but he can’t provide his family with the answers they seek. The reader follows young Sean through episodes that inexorably move him toward the trauma that will change his life.

The novel has a fuzzy quality. The jumps from the present to episodes in the past keep the reader off-balance. The alternate reality of Sean’s role-playing game adds to the uneasy feeling of the novel. Some chapters jump into Trace Italian and describe how players navigate the harsh realities of Sean’s created world. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, so I’ll stop.

The novel is the story of Sean, Sean’s family and friends, and the people playing Sean’s game. It is also filled with nostalgia. John Darnielle is a collector. He collects memories and feelings. That feeling you got when you watched static on the TV late at night in a kind of trance? John Darnielle remembers it and writes about it. That weird C-movie you watched on Saturday afternoon when you were a kid and no one else remembers ever existing? He remembers it. In fact, he has a VHS copy around here somewhere. 

I don’t think Sean is a wolf in a white van. I mentioned earlier that Transcendental Youth might be the best album to pair with this book, and I think that is because of a certain thematic cohesion. On the first track, a track named after the late Amy Winehouse, John Darnielle sings:

Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make 
Climb limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
Just stay alive

Wolf in White Van is full of people making choices that are A: hard to understand for everyone else, and B: dangerous or harmful. Darnielle doesn’t celebrate harmful choices, but he does explore life around those choices. Darnielle writes episodes of levity, kitsch, and nostalgia, but overall this is a book filled with more questions than answers and leaves the reader with the feeling that there might not be answers to some questions.

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).