We’ve expanded the regular AVQ&A discussion prompts to ask several of our regular contributors (and you) a simple question: What are you currently reading? If you have suggestions for future AVQ&A questions, big or small, email them to us here.
This month, my reading is all about playing catch-up. I’m just about to leave on a trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia, and while I remember little snippets of Anastasia-and-the-Romanovs-related history from when that was hot, I’m woefully lacking in everything else related to the region. I know that communism existed and all that, but I’ve been spending all my spare book time reading Robert K. Massie’s excellent—albeit dense—books about Peter The Great, Catherine The Great, and Tsar Nicholas II. Peter The Great: His Life And World is the most pertinent to my trip, because the 18th century tsar founded Saint Petersburg, but I’ve found both Catherine The Great: Portrait Of A Woman and Nicholas And Alexandra slightly easier to digest, for whatever reason. Regardless, all the books provide a fascinating look back at not only a caste system that doesn’t really exist anymore, but at a time and place that’s entirely foreign to most Westerners even now. Russia—in the 18th and 19th centuries especially—was an extremely singular locale, what with its distance from the rest of the European capitals and its enormous land mass, and it was something I had never really read much about before now, despite knowing all about all sorts of other European history. Massie’s books have helped me fill in a lot of gaps, and they’ll hopefully provide a solid base of knowledge before I plunge headlong into a historical adventure in the Russian spring.
I’m not the world’s foremost literary scholar, but it’s been a while since I read something that made me actively think, “Wait, what?” with quite the same frequency that Mark Doten’s debut novel The Infernal has caused. (Maybe Samuel Delany?) This isn’t to say that reading it is a chore—quite the opposite. It’s a wonderfully inventive and complex book, the kind of fiction just experimental enough to make you feel like you’re venturing into uncharted territory, without completely abandoning you there. Doten even inserts himself into the proceedings, though the fictional “Mark Doten” is an unreliable narrator, indeed. (Full disclosure: I attended college with the author.) As I began new chapters while reading it, I often found myself referring back to sections and descriptions I had already completed, trying to piece together the elliptical clues and strange riddles littered throughout this unusual alternate reality.
This is not a light beach read—it’s a heavy fallout-shelter mindfuck. The Infernal is a story in the loosest sense of the word, with multiple characters, timelines, and worlds that only occasionally come into contact with one another as the book progresses. It’s more of a theme than a singular narrative, a cross-cutting between intertwined ideas about the war on terror, sexuality, and identity, with people from the real world (Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama) re-envisioned in bizarre and sometimes disturbing ways. Torture apologist for the Bush regime, lawyer Alberto Gonzales, is living in the air vents of a mysterious complex. Osama Bin Laden is involved in a slapstick comedy of errors trying to kill a Jewish prisoner in his hidden cave system. The entire population might be destroyed by Mark Zuckerberg’s love for another man. The book is a sumptuous soup of big ideas and damaged psyches, conveyed in complex prose that doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. It’s a challenge, but a rich and rewarding one.
George Saunders is a wonder of absurdist storytelling, and Pastoralia sees him spinning bleak and funny short stories examining the intensely cringeworthy aspects of modern American living. With instant feedback on workers’ performance, inane self-help philosophies, and tragedy-focused reality TV shows, his satire is powerful because of how familiar it feels. Like the film Brazil, it’s enjoyable and discomfiting at the same time. Saunders’ wit and levity stop any of the stories from being a slog, though, so you can expect to laugh as often as you squirm—and sometimes you don’t know which one to do. Saunders exaggerates modern frustrations and heightens neurotic thought processes, but what makes this book land for me is how much I see myself in the hopeless losers who populate the page.
Meanwhile, the comic Saga has already been heralded on this site, but I’m going to add my voice to the list of glowing recommendations. I hadn’t gotten into comics before coming to The A.V. Club, and Saga was my gateway read: The writing and artistry are both top-notch in this space opera, and importantly for a comics newbie, it’s not packed within a daunting universe of already existing stories and characters. I’ve read quite a bit more comics since, but Saga remains the gold standard. Much as I love Bitch Planet, The Wicked + The Divine, and Sex Criminals, none of them hold up to the epic but personal story unfolding in the pages of Saga.
Notable April book releases, assorted:
- For those who remember Orange Is The New Black’s Red from Star Trek: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew (out April 14)
- For cat lovers, or really anyone who has ever loved a pet: The Good, The Bad, And The Furry by Tom Cox (out in the U.S. April 14)
- For the YA fan who is sick of dystopia: Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (out April 7)
- For anyone who’s wondered what happens when a child is deprived of speech: The Language Of Paradise by Barbara Klein Moss (out April 6)
- For brevity lovers: Life Is Short — Art Is Shorter: In Defense Of Brevity by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman (out April 14)
- For those who need to sort out their own complicated childhoods by reading about a dysfunctional family: The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (out April 7)
- For those looking to understand the dark side of human nature: The Story of Anders Breivik And The Massacre In Norway by Asne Seierstad, translated by Sarah Death (out April 21)
- For Black Sabbath fans: Black Sabbath: Symptoms Of The Universe by Mick Wall (out April 14)
- For malcontents looking to justify their malcontent ways: I don’t Have A Happy Place by Kim Korson (out April 14)
- For those addicted to gripping thrillers: House Of Echos by Brendan Duffy (out April 14)
- For those looking to extend winter with a snowy crime story, or who just want to hear Patti Smith on the audiobook: Blood On Snow by Jo Nesbø (out April 7)