This is a guest post from Andi Miller. Andi is a proponent of fauxhawks, gaudy jewelry, country music, and writing. When she’s not publicly relating at her day job or teaching university English courses online, she’s a hardcore reader, social media addict, 10-year book blogging veteran at Estella’s Revenge, and host of Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-Thon. Her favorite literary snacks are comics, literary fiction, and foodie memoirs. Her favorite real snacks are Froot Loops, fried catfish tails, and serial Twitter unfollowers. Follow her on Twitter @estellasrevenge.
Everyone’s reading tastes change over time. Maybe not from one year to the next, but usually one decade to the next, at least. For me, definitely, the change happened slowly over time. From my early 20s to my mid 20s I morphed from loving historical fiction and light women’s fare to classics of a Postmodern ilk. From there I stepped into comics and graphic novels, spent some time with children’s and YA, and later moved into contemporary literary fiction and short stories.
Now I find myself at a very specific and sometimes disturbing place. I am the sum of all the genres I’ve adopted over the years, but I find it’s harder these days to be bowled over by a book. To be emotionally affected in a way that feels cathartic and fulfilling, to be intellectually stimulated, and for the book to “stick” in my memory for the long term.
The books that seem to affect and fulfill me most are novels built on brutality and personal struggle. It’s a hard thing to admit because maybe it seems a little suspect. It’s a strange thought to entertain, but alas, it’s those confronting, hard-to-swallow books that feel the most rewarding when they’re done right. Like it was a little bit of emotional work to make the journey with the author.
These brutal books often make me cringe, they damn near always make me cry, and I can close those books with something to chew over…including whether the confrontational nature of the book was “worth it.” Was it sensational or sensitive? Honest or abhorrent?
A few brutal, gorgeous, wonderful, heart-wrenching books float to the top for me. Novels that felt like I was witnessing a terrible accident, but for all the terrible, the sum of the brutality was beautiful. The lesson, the observation, the journey.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, is a modern classic for a reason. The child protagonist, Bone, that Allison has written into life is hurt, conflicted, betrayed by her family, and abused. My heart resided with Bone while I read this novel, and I wanted to shake some sense into her family. Hers is a tale of neglect and longing, and I came out of it with the feeling that while the people we want to depend on most may not be there for us, there are always others waiting to pick up the pieces.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond, is one of the most brutal books I’ve ever read. I’d put this one in league with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, though the plot is very different. In an African-American community in Texas, hypocrites and religious zealots, human trafficking and abuse, run rampant, and their victim is Ruby, a woman whose sanity is questionable but who possesses an inner strength even she doesn’t realize. Luckily, one man is brave enough to help her when others point fingers.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, is another novel full of abuse. Told by a prison inmate who is strangely omniscient, a glaze of fantasy helps take the edge off of sexual abuse and prison brutality. The result is a magical atmosphere that seems incongruous with the characters’ struggles but ultimately all meshes together to create a memorable novel…one of my favorites.
While I certainly don’t want these characters I love to endure such injustices, it’s also the fact that they survive and endure that makes me love them. Their authors, in the way they weave together the terrible and rewarding, win my ultimate respect. Each reader reads for a different purpose, and for me, the ultimate reading experience is one that touches me deeply and makes me want to open the book again someday. That’s when I know brutality has come together to form something of beauty rather than relying on sensationalism.
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