A few years ago I started using the library to check out books again in earnest, realizing that my budget couldn’t really keep up with my appetite plus recognizing that my shelves were filling up with books I had no intention of reading again. And I discovered that checking out books from the library is motivating. If a title is popular, it will be due back at the end of the three week check-out time, no renewals. And should I get a stack that includes more than one popular book, I extra need to hustle. Such has been my experience the past few weeks, when I checked out Hamnet, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (currently reading), and the two books under discussion now: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and Shit, Actually by Lindy West.
Leave the World Behind – This novel combines literary fiction with apocalyptic sci-fi. It focuses on a white family spending their vacation at a fancy rental house in the country on Long Island. A couple of nights into their trip, a knock comes in the night, an older Black couple, owners of the house, saying that something has happened in the city and they were hoping to stay the night there. An uncomfortable circumstance ensues, both the social awkwardness of the renters vs. owners situation, but also their increasing realization that you apocalypse with the people who are with you at the time.
Leave the World Behind is one of those books where all the adult characters are jerks of one form or another. (And the children, a 16-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl, may be jerks-in-training.) Thus, I did not read the book because I enjoyed their company or was exactly rooting for them to survive whatever terrible thing looms. If you need to like characters to enjoy a book, this may not be the novel for you. However, the book does a masterful job unpacking how normal, contemporary, mildly shitty people would handle an emergency and shows just how unprepared many (most?) Americans are for anything truly catastrophic. It feels particularly prescient as the real-life catastrophic failure of Texas’ power grid underscores how vulnerable are the systems we rely on. I found Leave the World Behind fascinating, both in its focus on normal, non-heroic people in extreme circumstances and in its tabula rasa apocalypse, gesturing to all the usual suspects and inviting the reader to build whatever situation they want in the imaginative sandbox. If apocalypse fiction is your jam, Leave the World Behind is an important addition to the genre.
Also, because I can’t always talk to others about books I’ve read, podcasts sometimes scratch that itch to listen to and think about with others. Nerdette discussed this novel in her most recent episode and it’s a great conversation!
Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema – I read Lindy West’s The Witches Are Coming in the Before Times, finishing it at a corner table, drinking a beer at a pub after work before heading home for the evening. And I thought it was fine. So I expected to need to dip into West’s movie review collection, taking a bit in before taking a break. Readers, I devoured it. This collection is so funny and silly, a book published during the pandemic that speaks to how much I, at least, have come to crave any lightness and levity even as I hum with constant sadness and rage. It begins with the premise that The Fugitive is the greatest movie ever made and then proceeds to rate all subsequent movies on a scale of 1-10 DVDs of The Fugitive. (For the record, The Fugitive itself receives 13 of 10 DVDs of The Fugitive.)
Shit, Actually is a collection for people who love movies, for people who love to hate movies, and for people who love movies even when they know they should hate them. In each essay, West mocks the plot of the movie and its characters, tackling everything from Harry Potter to Reality Bites to The Rock. I have never felt so seen as during her blistering take-down of Love Actually, a movie so deeply, rage-inducingly terrible that I only saw it once and still have major plot points and scenes seared on my brain. Because rage. But West resists the urge to simply hate everything. Instead, she balances hilarious take-downs with pieces laughing at how much she loves a movie even as she recognizes its ridiculousness. This book was exactly what I needed to sail through my week, above my hum of sadness and rage, giggling and guffawing all the way.