What are you reading in July?

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?

Sometimes when funny people write books, the end result feels a little perfunctory—some jokes just work better delivered on stage or screen, and sometimes comedians’ work just doesn’t lend itself to the written word. Samantha Irby vaults over all those concerns and leaves them in the dust from almost the first page. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life is a nearly perfect collection of essays: Irby is hilarious and poignant and human, and she knows how to tell a damn good story. She turns a bout of terrible diarrhea into a tale of searing embarrassment and surprising friendship, and turns a Bachelorette application into a masterwork of self-deprecation and social commentary. She’s believable when she says she’s no longer sad about her parents being dead, and she gives the reader permission to laugh when her dad’s ashes blow into her face when she tries to spread them in a river. She talks about hard stuff—really hard stuff, like being dirt poor and being abused, having explosive diarrhea in a car with frat boys, and wandering in on a Civil War reenactment during a wedding in suburban Chicago. But she’s perfectly unapologetic, completely open-hearted in both love and hate, and totally honest with her laughter and tears.

I do a lot of reading, and nearly all of my rereading, in the summer. There’s something luxurious in returning to melancholy yet exuberant novels like A Visit From The Goon Squad or Mrs. Dalloway, books that shimmer with sensuous life. So it goes with Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 debut, Housekeeping. The novel follows narrator Ruth and her sister, Lucille, who are abandoned by their mother, grandmother, and then two great aunts before their eccentric Aunt Sylvie comes to care for them in the fictitious Northwest town of Fingerbone. The family has long been isolated from the rest of the town, which the arrival of the peculiar, loner aunt accentuates, acting as a catalyst between the two adolescent sisters, pushing them to decide what kind of people they want to be. The narrative is quietly compelling, with actions as small as turning on a lamp swelling to weighted importance. As much as for the story, I’m revisiting the novel this summer for the prose itself, somehow rich and plain at once. Much time is spent with the sisters walking in the woods or sitting along a quarry; Robinson’s prose describing nature is especially lush, yet not merely for beauty’s sake, as her descriptions work double as metaphors—for the sisters’ isolation, for the passing of time, for the darkness that lies within each of these characters, and everyone.

A fascination with time suffuses Before The Fall, Noah Hawley’s fascinating and sharp page-turner of a novel that somehow combines beach-read thrills with meditative character study. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen either of his TV shows on FX—Fargo, and to a even larger degree Legion, are about how we understand the passing of time, and the way that significant events can move our thoughts forward and backward simultaneously, as we find ourselves replaying the past even while we look to the future.

The book recounts the events surrounding the crash of a small private jet not far off the coast of New York, and how it impacts the lives of not only the few survivors, but the family, friends, and entire media landscape as the tragedy becomes front-page news, fodder for the 24-hour media cycle. Like Legion’s David Haller, or any of Fargo’s small-town police protagonists, it involves an average person suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and how it forces them to either rise to the occasion, or be swept away by the tide of the situation’s intensity. But it’s far more timely than either of those series, in the sense that it affords Hawley an opportunity to look at how media and culture shape our history, and perform the alchemical feat of turning facts and realities into narratives and stories—stories that erase actual moments to become the truth of the matter. “Since when does how a thing looks matter more than what it is?” asks the novel’s protagonist, an alcoholic painter trying to rebuild his life. “Two thousand twelve, I think,” is the flat reply. And the book is filled with finely wrought assessments of contemporary society and our ever-shifting place within it, as well as the razor’s edge of respectability on which we all live, subject to both the vagaries of fate and the manipulations of those with an interest in assigning meaning to everything, as a way of fighting off the unpredictability of said fate.

Just as important and impressive, Before The Fall offers some of the most succinct and elegant aphorisms about class and inequality in America this side of a John Steinbeck novel, searingly honest and insightful without being polemical. A third of the way through, Hawley offers up this passage:

“The things money can’t buy,” goes the famous quote, “you don’t want anyway.” Which is bullshit, because in truth there is nothing money can’t buy. Not really. Love, happiness, peace of mind. It’s all available for a price. The fact is, there’s enough money on earth to make everyone whole, if we could just learn to do what any toddler knows—share. But money, like gravity, is a force that clumps, drawing in more and more of itself, eventually creating the black hole that we know as wealth. This is not simply the fault of humans. Ask any dollar bill and it will tell you it prefers the company of hundreds to the company of ones. Better to be a sawbuck in a billionaire’s account than a dirty single in the torn pocket of an addict.

Hawley follows human lives, not a story, doubling back and giving weight to anyone whose life intersects with his narrative, however briefly. His book argues for the weight and worth of those who seem to be minor characters. Just like on his shows, the subtext rings out: None of us are minor characters in our own stories.