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.
November was a lesser month for book releases after the usual fall literary boom. But we’re still planning reviews of some November releases: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm, and Roberto Bolaño’s Woes Of The True Policeman. November also saw new high-profile fiction releases from Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, and John Grisham, plus Willie Nelson’s latest autobiography, the first Adventure Time graphic novel, and a new Dark Tower graphic novel from Peter David and Robin Furth. So there’s plenty of new material to read right now, though a lot of us are still catching up on the massive glut of music-related bios and prestige fiction from September and October.
For instance, I’m smack in the middle of reading Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, having finally gotten over feeling bogged down in the section about the character kidnapped, inducted into a concentration camp, and subjected to endless systematic humiliation, starvation, rape, brainwashing, and other abuse. Much like I tore through the initial book in the series, The Passage, until it leaped forward a hundred years and I briefly struggled to stay interested, I loved this book until that emotionally grueling segment, which was just exhausting; there are so many dangling threads in the book, and so many of them are draining and dispiriting. But it’s picked up again, and I should be done with it by the weekend. I also just finished reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth, which I enjoyed a good deal more than our reviewer Rowan Kaiser did; he felt it was incomplete and lacking in plot, but I was entirely content with the potential suggested by its setup, in which all humanity suddenly gains access to what may be an infinite number of unoccupied alternate-dimension earths, packed with untouched resources. It’s a far cry from Pratchett’s usual fantasy novels, given that it’s more focused on characters and on the real-world political, social, and economic changes such a change would cause, and given that the sequel’s already in the works, it seems easy enough to accept it as a launching pad rather than a stand-alone novel. And I finally got around to reading the complete collection of Terry Moore’s comics series Echo, which is terrific; it has all Moore’s fine-lined, beautifully detailed artwork; his sense of drama and humor; and his talent for creating expressive, believable women characters, but without the endlessly frustrating repetition of his Strangers In Paradise.
I just finally got around to reading Erik Larson’s The Devil In The White City, a book that had been on my radar practically since it came out in 2003, though for one reason or another, I hadn’t tackled it until now. Larson’s novelistic non-fiction book tells two compelling stories that share a time (the 1890s) and a place (Chicago): On one side, there’s the planning and building of the 1893 World’s Fair, an absolutely incredible feat of architecture and engineering that came together in a ridiculously short amount of time. On the other, there’s the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who lived very close to the fair grounds—and who found easy pickings in the single women who flocked to the city looking for fair-related jobs. The Holmes story is horrifying: He was a charming man who seemed to enjoy the gamesmanship in murder, and he built a hotel specifically for the purpose of torturing and murdering people, complete with its own crematory. Down the street, other men were building something greater, for the purpose of civic pride (and money—lots of money). Daniel Burnham was the chief architect of the World’s Fair, which constructed buildings larger and more grandiose than any the world had ever seen, and did it all in just a couple of years. (And the buildings were destroyed after the Fair! Only the Museum Of Science And Industry remains.) Anyway, I enjoyed the book quite a bit—less for the historical lesson of these particular men, and more for the historical color of Chicago in the 1890s, a place that apparently smelled horrible almost all the time. I’ve lived not far from the former World’s Fair grounds for several years now, and I’ll have a new appreciation when walking the Midway and the Japanese Gardens from now on.
Pretty much since college, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll eventually have time to read all the great Russian novels I’ve never read. That has yet to happen, but I did finally read Anna Karenina in advance of the new film adaptation, as I don’t really like having great books I haven’t read spoiled by the movies. It took forever, but that says more about the amount of free time I have these days than the book itself, which I loved. It’s often regarded as the height of 19th-century realism, but I can see why William Faulkner admired it so much. Tolstoy had strong views about right and wrong, but his writing has a tremendous empathy for all of the characters, drifting beautifully from one internal life to the next. So maybe it’s time to “do Russia” after all, even if from there, I moved on to a different sort of sweeping book, recently raved about by our own Jason Heller: Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Howe’s exhaustive look at Marvel from its early days in the first comics boom shortly before World War II up to (almost) the present features a lot of colorful characters and conflicts, from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s fruitful partnership and sudden split to the counterculture-influenced creators who took over the industry in the 1970s to Marvel’s near-disappearance in the 1990s after the bottom fell out of the comic-book market. But the bigger, fairly depressing, story here is about the uneasy relationship between those who create and those who sell their creations, the tension that always results when art and business have to work together, and the way exploitation and fiscal mismanagement almost always seems to work out much better for the exploiters and mismanagers than those doing the real work of making something meaningful, even if most of the world just sees it as people in capes and masks exchanging blows high in the sky.