We’ve further expanded the definition of AVQ&A—our Monday and Friday discussion prompts—by asking you (and two 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.
The arrival of August brings with it book releases from several high-profile names. Music journalist Rob Sheffield has released a third volume of essays commingling Sheffield’s personal and musical histories, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals Of Love & Karaoke. Spanish author Javier Marías has released another winner with The Infatuations. Marisha Pessl follows up her 2006 debut, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, with a literary thriller, Night Film. Edwidge Danticat’s first novel since 2004’s excellent The Dew Breaker, Claire Of The Sea Light, is set for a late August release. Additional books of note include Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound Of Things Falling, Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors, Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s & Other Essays, and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s follow-up to his 2010 memoir about growing up within the Socialist Party USA, a short-story collection titled Brief Encounters With The Enemy.
I’ve been reading several books with the intention of writing about them, so I’ll save those to share at a later date. But I also read two poetry collections from writers with Chicago connections, Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman and My Kill Adore Him by Paul Martínez Pompa. Before picking up the former, all I knew of Cisneros was her 1984 novel, The House On Mango Street, a book I read years ago—before I even lived in Chicago—and remembered liking, but hadn’t thought much about since. Loose Woman is a different experience all together. Reading these poems feels a bit like the reader stole Cisneros’ dream journal—her lyrical, evocative, confessional, very naughty dream journal. My favorite poem by far is the one from which the book gets its title. I want to memorize this poem, and scream it, or sing it, or whisper it, or just repeat it to myself, like a mantra. Though only 80 pages, Pompa’s collection packs a wallop as well. His poems are alternately humorous (“Amputee Etcetera,” “Commercial Break”) and devastating (“Officer Friendly”), and they examine race and Chicago life in an incisive way that few prose writers are managing to do these days.
I’m still working my way through the Jim Henson biography I mentioned in a previous AVQ&A—not because it’s a slog or anything, but because it’s a hefty tome. At more than 500 pages, it’s a bit much to lug back and forth on public transit everyday, so I’m largely savoring it in chapter-by-chapter chunks at home—most recently arriving at the post-Sesame Street, pre-Muppet Show period where Henson took every opportunity he could find to let people know that he wasn’t just a children’s entertainer. (A mission that eventually led to the Muppets’ disastrous spell on Saturday Night Live.) In search of lighter (in terms of substance and actual weight) reading, I’ve taken to the debut novel from another Saturday Night Live alum: The Stench Of Honolulu by humorist Jack Handey. The term “novel” doesn’t stick well to The Stench Of Honolulu, constructed as several hundred one-liners draped over the framework of a pulpy sojourn into the wilds of Hawaii. The true draw here is Handey’s knack with the surreal and the whimsical, airtight quips with dark underpinnings that betray a fascination with language and a mastery of pacing. (A sample joke/paragraph from the book’s dimwitted, unnamed narrator: “My mind was expanding. Or maybe my brain was expanding. Something was expanding.”) The Stench Of Honolulu plays like an extension of “My Big Thick Novel,” Handey’s early ’00s SNL feature that baked the jackknife punchlines of his “Deep Thoughts” pieces into grand stories of hard-boiled adventure. Like those segments, The Stench Of Honolulu hops from plot point to plot point with reckless momentum, but that momentum helps the laughs sink in. With The Stench Of Honolulu, it’s not the destination that matters—it’s how many jokes Handey can pack into the journey.
I started reading Tony Fletcher’s exhaustive history A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths late last year, when it was first published, but it started to lose my interest about 80 pages in, because Morrissey and Johnny Marr hadn’t been born yet. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but biographies that spend too much time on family tree before getting to the meat (is murder) of the matter tend to bore me: A bit of color about the culture and politics of the time is plenty, and, of course, stories about influential relatives are germane. Anyway, I picked the book back up recently and powered through to the stuff that actually intrigues me, specifically first-person accounts of Manchester in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and, even more specifically, the stories about what a weirdo Morrissey was even then. I had never read the stories of band members who were briefly in the band that became The Smiths, but everyone describes the singer as shy and/or condescending and uncommunicative. It’s a vulgar picture so far—I’m still in 1983—but a fascinating, thorough one.