What are you reading? (November 2013)

What are you reading? (November 2013)

We’ve further expanded the definition of AVQ&A—our Monday and Friday discussion prompts—by asking you (and three of our regular contributors) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? If you have suggestions for AVQ&A questions, big or small, you can email them to us here.

Although this is traditionally the time of year when new book releases slow down until January, there have been a number of releases of interest this month, especially for readers who prefer history, biographies, or memoirs.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has released a new book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, And The Golden Age Of Journalism. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, several books about JFK, particularly those few days in November 1963, have been published. On the comedian front, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor And The World That Made Him arrives, and Rob Delaney’s book, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage., is a self-examination of the Twitter sensation’s life thus far. For readers more interested in examining the lives and legacies of artists long gone, there’s a Jimi Hendrix book (Jimi Hendrix: Starting At Zero), a new Johnny Cash book (Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn), and an exhaustive Bob Fosse bio (Sam Wasson’s Fosse). Allie Brosh has turned her excellent autobiographical blog, Hyperbole And A Half, into a book. Also on the autobiography front come books from Mike Tyson (Undisputed Truth, to coincide with the HBO special of same name), Dr. J (Dr. J: The Autobiography), and Artie Lange (Crash And Burn).

This month, New Yorker writer Hilton Als released a long-awaited follow-up to his 1996 memoir examining race and gender, The Women, titled White Girls. And for the fiction-lovers comes Amy Tan’s newest, The Valley Of Amazement,and At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcón. A new novel titled S. (though to call it a “novel” doesn’t do justice to all the narrative nooks and crannies of this effort) even has J.J. Abrams getting in on the book action. He co-authored the book with writer Doug Dorst.

Andrea Battleground
Earlier this year, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became an Internet sensation when he covered David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in space, and in October he released his memoir/advice book, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth. Hadfield covers most of the expected memoir ground—describing how a determined kid who grew up on a farm in southern Ontario became the first Canadian to walk in space and commander of the International Space Station—but he also incorporates simple “how to live well” suggestions and insights for those of us who aren’t planning to head up the ISS. Hadfield’s a natural storyteller, and in An Astronaut’s Guide, he’s managed to make this memoir of a guy who worked his ass off and made good decisions for life and family compelling, without venturing into territory too didactic or preachy. I’m also enjoying The Best American Comics 2013, edited by Jeff Smith, which anthologizes the year’s best comic/graphic pieces that have appeared in American publications or periodicals. This year’s collection has excerpts from the big names (Alison Bechdel, Craig Thompson), but it also features some pleasant surprises (Jesse Jacobs’ “By This You Shall Know Him,” selections from Incidentalcomics.com and Tony Puryear’s Concrete Park). And like any self-respecting former musical-theater geek, I’m slowly making my way through this brick of a Fosse bio by Sam Wasson. I expect to finish it sometime in 2015.

Sonia Saraiya
I’m reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers, and I can recommend it, though I’m not sure if I can describe it. There are a few different narratives unfolding simultaneously; the main one, which is also the most weighty, is narrated in the first-person by a 24-year-old woman living in the New York City art scene in the 1970s. She goes by the name Reno, because that’s where she’s from, but even 234 pages in, her real name remains a mystery. In a sense, her surface identity is irrelevant to the story itself. As she tells her story—with foreboding—of her gradual involvement with a few fringe elements of the scene, Kushner also reveals the story of Reno’s boyfriend’s father, an Italian who developed an obsession with motorcycles as a boy and built an empire. There’s a brutality to the book that eludes classification. Reno’s youth and obsession with speed are hurtling her toward something shapeless and dreadful. It’s hard to fathom why Kushner is telling the story—why Italy? Why motorcycles? Why underground revolutionaries and pretentious artists? But it’s also impossible to deny the power of the narrative, which is quietly dark and rebellious. 

John Teti
I recently tore through Henry Bushkin’s memoir of his time with Johnny Carson, aptly titled Johnny Carson. Bushkin was Carson’s lawyer, business manager, traveling companion, right-hand man—in short, his “consigliere,” as Bushkin puts it. As such, Bushkin spent a lot of time with Carson, so he’s one of the few people who can offer deep insight on one of the 20th century’s most private broadcast icons. That promise pans out for the most part. Bushkin may not be the most talented prose stylist, but he doesn’t try to be, either. Instead, he focuses on crafting a thorough and even-handed picture of his mercurial subject. Some of Bushkin’s anecdotes don’t go anywhere, but the book is full of memorable scenes, like the time Carson’s third wife broke so much glassware in a fit of rage at her husband that a hazmat team had to come in to clean up the apartment. I’m surprised by how openly Bushkin talks about some details of Johnny’s life—apparently, lawyer-client privilege only extends so far. A few weeks ago, I also finished Area 51: An Uncensored History Of America’s Top Secret Military Base, which is an odd beast. About 85 percent of the book is taken up with well-reported accounts of the base’s many strange transformations, and it paints an engrossing picture of what it’s like to live and work in a place that nobody’s supposed to talk about. But then the other 15 percent dwells on whackadoo Nazi-Soviet conspiracy theories that have been thoroughly debunked years before the writer, Annie Jacobsen, reported the book. Next up for me is Double Down, the inside-baseball chronicle of the 2012 presidential election.