While reading one of these books, I had a memory of a similar book I had read recently. I looked into my Books Read list and could not find a match. I went back to reading, but the memory stuck with me. Soon I was checking again, and then looking through my Reader’s Notebook entries for the past few months, but still could not find it. Sadly my library does not offer a history of books that I have checked out to reference.
So, it appears that I forgot to account for a book I read late last year. I can’t remember the title or author. I imagine I will at some point. It was a good book, too!
On to the books I do remember.
Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will – Judith Schalansky
I’ve read so many books over the years about traveling to remote islands. Yet I’ve never been to a truly remote or exotic island.
Same for Judith Schalansky. She began her fascination with far-flung islands when we was a child in East Germany. She loved pouring over her family’s atlas and studying the way political and geographic features changed the colors on each page’s map. Those islands scattered in the middle of the great seas were especially captivating to her.
Schalansky came of age in modern, unified Germany. With that came a freedom to travel that did not exist in the communist country of her birth. Even with her ability to cross borders, those pesky islands still called to her.
Here she offers one-page essays on 50 remote, sometimes uninhabited islands, along with maps of each that she has drawn. Sometimes the stories are historical factoids, sometimes fictional musings. But they all address the isolation and mystery that are part of each island’s DNA.
The Institute – Stephen King
Yep, I’m back on my bullshit. Each time I say, “OK, I’m done with reading Stephen King’s books,” someone tells me that I should really read one of his latest. I’m glad I listened to those friends – and the 2019 Best Of lists that included this book – and tackled The Institute. It is one of King’s best works in many years; likely his best post-Dark Tower novel.
The book is centered on Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old mega-genius from Minnesota who is about to go off to MIT after absolutely acing the SATs. Despite being smarter than anyone he’s ever met, Luke is remarkably grounded and normal. But he also has moments when things around him move unexpectedly. A pizza plater, for example, that flies off the table and crashes onto the floor when he gets agitated.
In the middle of the night Luke is kidnapped, his parents murdered, and he wakes up at The Institute, a facility tucked away in the wilds of Maine. In The Institute are other tweens and teens who have either telekinetic or telepathic powers. They undergo tests and, within a few weeks of their arrival, are sent to the Back Half of the institute, from which they never return. No questions the kids ask about the tests are ever answered. The children are often subjected to physical violence if they don’t follow the orders of the Institute’s workers.
Eventually Luke, with the help of a kindly employee, hatches a plan to escape and find help. His trek to safety ends in a big, violent, deadly gun battle. While he earns the freedom of his friends at the Institute, that freedom comes with a potentially massive price.
This has all the elements of King’s best work: children with special powers as the main characters, who are far more mature and caring than most of their adult counterparts. A truly evil villain, in this case the Institute itself along with its employees. Relatable, everyman heroes. And an ending that is mostly satisfying, but leaves just enough uncertainty to make you wonder if the resolution of the problem was worth it.
It’s amazing that King is still cranking out these wonderful stories.
The Need – Helen Phillips
This is a book that owes a lot to Stephen King. It is creepy, has links to a parallel world, yet is based on seemingly normal people.
Molly is a paleobotanist – she looks for fossils of ancient plant life – who is engaged in a dig near her home. In recent weeks a series of strange, man-made objects have turned up. A Coke bottle with the logo slightly different than what we are used to. A toy soldier with a monkey tail. And, most importantly, a Bible that reads exactly like the Bible Molly has read with one, huge exception: God is referred to as “She” rather than “He.”
Molly has also been hearing strange sounds since these objects appeared. She is sure she has heard footsteps in her house at night, but there are never signs of an intruder.
Until one evening, when her husband is out of the country and she is attempting to get her toddler and preschooler to bed, the sounds return and she finally discovers the person who has been sneaking around.
I won’t give away who the person is, because the reveal is a fascinating moment in the story. I will say that Molly is presented with a rather unique rival, someone who knows her every detail of her life, down to her basic thoughts. This encounter turns Molly’s life upside down in a moment when she is at her most vulnerable.
This is one of those books that makes you squirm often as you read it. It’s not necessarily scary, but it has so many moments that should really creep you out. While it is focused on how motherhood can tear a woman’s life apart, as a stay-at-home dad I connected with much of the emotional and mental strain that Molly felt. I think any parent – mom or dad, working or not – will find moments here they can connect with.
There is a vagueness to how Phillips ends the story that has caused problems for many readers. I’m fine with vague endings. Phillips’ did make me wonder what the truth of the novel was, though. Was this intruder from another world real, or a figment of Molly’s overstressed and hormonal imagination?
The Topeka School – Ben Lerner
I had quite the run recently. Four books I had on hold came in within a week of each other. I ended up having to send one back to tackle later, but I raced through the other three, including this, judged by many critics to be one of the best of 2019.
It confused me. And I’m not sure why. As I read it I wondered if I am just getting older, and am losing my ability to connect with what younger people think is interesting/relevant art. Or am I just not that smart and miss what all these highfalutin, east coast critics go gaga for?
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I liked long stretches of it a lot. After a bit of a slow start I raced through most of it in two days.
But when I went back and read reviews to see what I was missing that made others think this was a work of genius, I did not understand how they reached their conclusions. Some said it is a grand statement on language and its meaning. I totally missed that. Others said it is a statement on toxic masculinity. I kind of get that, but it wasn’t my big takeaway from the book.
Maybe it’s just that I’ve always been most concerned with plot and character. There are plenty of books that I can find deeper, metaphorical meanings in. But that isn’t always my primary mission when looking to be entertained.
I liked the book. I liked that it (mostly) took place in Topeka and Lawrence and Kansas City in times when I lived in that area. I liked one character, Adam, in particular. I could draw many lines directly from his high school life to mine.
But whatever it is that made so many people go nuts for this book was either over my head, or just didn’t tickle the right parts of my brain.