We’ve expanded the regular AVQ&A discussion prompts to ask three of our regular contributors (and you) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? This month, books editor Andrea Battleground, associate editor Marah Eakin, and editorial manager Laura M. Browning get the spotlight. If you have suggestions for future AVQ&A questions, big or small, email them to us here.
I’m continuing my summer experiment of combating my diminished attention span by reading more short works, and this month has been an embarrassment of riches for new (but actually old) releases in the form. I’ve been fascinated with Dorothy Parker since high school—when I saw that Jennifer Jason Leigh movie—and was delighted last month when Parker biographer Marion Meade collaborated with Penguin eClassics to release “Alpine Giggle Week” and “The Last Days Of Dorothy Parker.” The former is a recently rediscovered letter Parker wrote to her publishers in 1930 while “trapped” at a Swiss tuberculosis colony. Parker was such a vicious gossip, and it’s fun to see her try to overcome her cabin fever and writer’s block with this name-dropping account of her adventures with her friends and/or frenemies. The latter was written by Meade and is subtitled “The Extraordinary Lives Of Dorothy Parker And Lillian Hellman And How Death Can Be Hell On Friendship.” While that subtitle is pretty wordy, there’s truth in advertising: This is a great read that touches on the histories of these two women, the New York-Hollywood tug-of-war for 20th-century creative types, and how Parker’s remains ended up stuffed in a cabinet for two decades before being given to the NAACP.
Open Road Media made a Battleground dream come true when the digital publisher released Unexpected Stories two weeks ago and expanded the catalog of published work from Octavia Butler. The digital-only collection contains two tales Butler wrote very early in her career: A Necessary Being is a novelette about two alien beings, belonging to a species called Hao, who are members of a race on the brink of extinction. And while it is a charming observation on the responsibilities of leadership, the psychology of power, and the corrosive influence of class and caste, it’s more interesting to note it as an early exploration of themes Butler continued to examine for the rest of her career and as evidence of a budding master storyteller working on her craft. Unless Butler had decided to go incredibly bleak and defeatist, the ending to A Necessary Being is predictable from the outset, so it was more rewarding to look at it as an embryonic sketch of future works. Speaking of bleak, “Childfinder,” the second story, does end on a bit of a downer, but it also works as a big metaphor for the challenges of mentorship—how difficult it is to find and be a mentor, whether you’re a powerful telepath fighting for survival on your own terms or just a plain old human trying to figure it all out.
I hesitate to call Hari Kunzru’s Twice Upon A Time: Listening To New York an long-form essay or a short story; it’s more a multimedia immersive experience to be consumed on one of those portable electronic devices most people carry around with them every day. Like an obedient consumer, I “read” it on my iPad. What Kunzru has done here is pretty remarkable, as he recounts the early days after his move to New York City using prose, photography, collage, recorded music, and a variety of other sounds. The soundtrack has been programmed to coordinate with page turns (or page swipes, to be accurate): When Kunzru is describing a late-evening walk where he happens upon street drummers, drumming begins on the the recording. The writer’s “spiritual guide” for the endeavor is Moondog, a real-life New York street musician who busked the streets from approximately 1943 to 1974, and several Moondog recordings can be found on the soundscape of Twice Upon A Time. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that this should kick off a trend where writers adopt this new format for their works. As a reader I want my imagination to have room to breathe as well, but this was a truly novel reading experience—one that only really works if you have a smartphone or a tablet in your hand and a set of headphones on your ears.
My maternal grandparents owned a restaurant for 50-odd years and my mom writes about food and restaurants, so I’m no stranger to kitchen life. But while my knife skills are okay and my piecrust recipe is on point, I’ve still never actually been a cook, let alone an actual chef. (I was a waitress in a struggling restaurant for about two months, but that doesn’t count.) My interest in the behind-the-scenes world of restaurants led me to grab Sous Chef: 24 Hours On The Line. Released earlier this spring, Sous Chef is helmed by Michael Gibney, an experienced chef who also holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. Wandering along the boundary of autobiography and complete work of fiction, Sous Chef follows an unnamed chef at a fancy New York restaurant as he gets in, sets up, smokes cigarettes, and spends a day balancing his prep work and management duties. It’s pretty ticky-tacky stuff and not every reader is going to be fascinated with the book’s in-depth descriptions of a kitchen’s fish station, but for those who get off on that type of detail, Sous Chef is food-nerd catnip.
Laura M. Browning
I just finished Adam by Ariel Schrag, which is really a YA novel, but is being marketed as “lesbian fiction,” likely due to the explicit sex scenes and anticipated protests from parents and teachers. Which is too bad, because it’s young adults who will probably most need this story of Adam, a straight, cisgender 17-year-old who finds himself deep in the LGBT scene in New York in the mid-’00s when he spends a summer with his lesbian sister. The first half of the book is a slog, just a bloated setup of the second half, so it’s impossible to talk about the book without mentioning the reveal that happens halfway through: Adam falls for a cisgender woman who identifies as gay, and when she mistakes him as a trans guy, he keeps up the lie, even after several months of dating and sex. It’s hard to be invested in Adam as anything more than a vessel through which a kind of how-to manual passes: As Adam figures out how to perpetuate this lie, it’s just another opportunity for Schrag to go on tangents that explain various surgeries or hormones trans people might opt for. Narratively, it falls flat, but one can imagine trans teens—or really anybody who cares about LGBT issues—deeply in need of this information but unsure of how and who to ask. Structurally, the book isn’t very elegant—the aforementioned first half creeps by, and then the book wraps up with a few pages that cover more territory than the entirety of what came before. That said, even as a straight, cisgender woman, I found a lot to love in characters who were figuring out who they were and how to accept people they don’t understand, even if their journeys were a lot more complicated than mine. By choosing Adam as her protagonist, Schrag avoided the trap of having a main trans character who just exists as show-and-tell, and it’s nice to see a book that treats individuals as individuals, no matter where they are on the straight-queer spectrum. This isn’t a great book, but it’s an important one.
Here are some notable July book releases:
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (out 7/1)
The Fracking King by James Browning (out 7/1)
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (out 7/1)
The Actress by Amy Sohn (out 7/1)
Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeil (out 7/3)
California by Edan Lepucki (out 7/8)
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian (out 7/8)
Landline by Rainbow Rowell (out 7/8)
The Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen (out 7/8)
The Land Of Love And Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique (out 7/10)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (out 7/10)
Last Stories And Other Stories by William T. Vollman (out 7/10)
World Of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book Three by Ben Winters (out 7/15)
The Book Of Life (All Souls Book Three) by Deborah Harkness (out 7/15)
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (out 7/29)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (out 7/29)
War Of The Whales by Joshua Horwitz (out 7/1)
I Said Yes To Everything by Lee Grant (out 7/8)
Glow: The Autobiography Of Rick James by Rick James and David Ritz (out 7/8)
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills (out 7/15)
Michelangelo: A Life In Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger (out 7/22)
Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews (out 7/29)