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 e-mail them to us here.
February book releases feel a little thin, except among mainstream bestseller authors like James Patterson, Jodi Picoult, and Jonathan Kellerman. But there are some bright spots: Swamplandia author Karen Russell goes back to her celebrated short stories with Vampires In The Lemon Grove. Maeve Binchy’s A Week In Winter comes out February 12. The authors of NurtureShock are back with a new pop-science book, Top Dog: The Science Of Winning And Losing. Jenna Miscavige Hill’s memoir, Beyond Belief, continues the recent run of Scientology exposés. Herman Koch’s international mega-bestseller The Dinner is coming to America and getting a lot of big buzz in the process. The estate of the late Maurice Sendak is releasing the last book he finished before dying in 2012: My Brother’s Book, a more adult read that still draws on poetry and Sendak’s familiar illustrations. And Lee Marvin’s autobiography Point Blank could be promising. We have reviews of many of these books already in the pipeline, but as always, we’re curious what February releases you’re most anticipating.
I’ve dropped back a bit from recent releases—though I did just read George Saunders’ terrific Tenth Of December—and I’ve been picking over some of the unread books on my shelves lately. The best of the lot by far was Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, which I picked up largely due to repeated recommendations from Glen Weldon over at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. It was billed as a modern-day retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sounds dubious because the play has been mined and reworked so many times already. This one finds a fresh take. The Great Night gets its backbone from Midsummer Night’s Dream, but its relationship to that play is similar to The Magicians’ relationship to the Narnia series. It isn’t a retelling, it just borrows the earlier work’s mythology for a poetically written but solidly grounded story about relationships, loss, and mourning. There’s a Titania, but she’s much more concerned with her overwhelming grief over a lost child than with her donkey-headed lover. There’s a Puck, and he’s terrifying. There are lost lovers running around in the darkness, but they all have rich backstories, largely focused on broken lives and broken relationships. And the book explores all the characters at length more than it deals with the structure of the play. It’s almost a themed anthology in its breakdown of individual tales, but it’s all wound around a central structure of people trying to rebuild their lives after catastrophe—in Titania’s case, by creating a new catastrophe by releasing Puck into the world as an act of anger and self-destruction. It’s much less of a comedy than the play, and much less of an idyll, and it’s fabulous.
I’m currently reading Weldon’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography and loving that as well. But that isn’t out ’til April, so I’ll avoid saying too much about it now, except that I’m not particularly interested in Superman, and I’m still finding this book fascinating in its broad overview of the character’s history as a constantly changing cultural phenomenon, adaptable for any era. So here’s another recent read that surprised me: Michael Olson’s Strange Flesh, an April 2012 novel that’s reminiscent of early Neal Stephenson. This is an odd book with some obvious marketing points—it prominently involves a team of people trying to build virtual-reality sex robots, and a corporate spy who joins their team while hunting down a man who may have killed himself, or uploaded his consciousness into a computer, or just found a way to bait his rich-and-powerful half-siblings with what he considers provocative art. Like The Great Night, this one is more than it initially appears to be—it teases at a bunch of genres, from technothriller to science fiction to noir mystery to spy novel, and winds up drawing in elements of all of them. It’s pulpy in subject matter and overall plot arc, but written more like a literary novel, with plenty of place-and-time specificity and background and character development. It’s tawdry and fun, but ambitious and unique at the same time, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book.
I’m experiencing a bit of tonal whiplash this month, as I transition from finishing up World War Z, which I’ve been picking my way through between Sandman collections, to just starting Anna Karenina. And I mean just starting. As in, my Kindle says I’m 2 percent through. But even at this early stage, I’m surprised at how approachable and readable it is, even on the heels of something like World War Z.
I really, really enjoyed WWZ, which has been on my “to-read” list for about half a decade. I generally like stories about the world ending or falling apart. Recently, Justin Cronin’s The Twelve helped me zero in specifically on what I like about these stories: the logistics. I like reading the specific details of how things go wrong and in what order and the domino effect it creates, and the individual stories that play out within those events. The details make the devastation on the page seem plausible, and by extension make the stories of the individuals experiencing these events hit harder. As I was trying to elucidate this to a friend of mine, he interrupted me with, “Wait, and you still haven’t read World War Z?” Because that’s basically all it is. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed once I started reading. I liked that the zombie encounters were rarely played for scares—irrational as it is, zombies still give me the willies—and instead presented as a large-scale adversary to be overcome. Not every chapter worked, and I wish there had been a little more time spent on the role of the media and/or online communication, something Feed, another enjoyable zombie-apocalypse novel, did well a few years later. But the stuff that did work, like the Battle Of Yonkers, worked like gangbusters. (I’m still a little teary over the chapter about the K Corps.)
As for Anna Karenina, it’s tough to offer much insight in the early going, other than to explain why I picked it up over what I was originally planning to read next, Joe Hill’s Heart Shaped Box. After seeing Joe Wright’s recent film adaptation, which I enjoyed a lot, I started to notice that the people who didn’t like it seemed to be the people who had read the book, which made me curious about a novel I’d long given up on as something I’d pick up after graduating college. (Somehow it never made its way into my English-major curriculum.) It still seemed like way too much of a project, though, especially when I already spend my workday poring over giant blocks of text. But then my pop-lit-favoring mom, who also enjoyed the movie, decided to give it a shot, and blazed through it in relatively short order; her telling me what an engaging read it is convinced me it was something I could take on, so I downloaded a free copy to my Kindle, and I’m off. At this early stage, it certainly seems like something I’ll be able to see through to the end, though who knows when that end will actually arrive.
I seem to always be reading five or six books at once, not because I’m one of those people who intends to do this, but because I’m always losing, then re-finding books, on top of all of the reading I do for work. (On the docket right now: Storm Of Swords, the third book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, in preparation for being an “expert” for season three of Game Of Thrones, and a bunch of Ray Bradbury short-story collections, for the next Nerd Curious.) My current “fun” read is Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, a wonderful little “realistic fantasy” novel about people drawn to another world and the way that world haunts their day-to-day lives in ours. After that, I’m going to finally bite the bullet and read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, because I loved the first book so much. And after that? Maybe I’ll finally dig into Vanity Fair, which I resolved to read in 2012. It didn’t happen, but hey, that’s what new years are for. Shit. Is it already February?