Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What are you reading in February 2014?

AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

The early-year deluge of new books continues into February. Here are but a few slated for release.

“Promising debut” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in book press releases, but the following ones seem to earn that distinction: Actor/stand-up comedian/screenwriter B.J. Novak makes his fiction debut with a collection of short stories, One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories (out 2/4); recipient of National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award Molly Antopol has a story collection titled The UnAmericans (out 2/3); Joshua Max Feldman has a modern-day retelling of the Book Of Jonah he’s taken to calling The Book Of Jonah (out 2/4); Andy Weir has the highly anticipated The Martian (out 2/11); and Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out Of A Door In The Mountain (out 2/25).


Several established literary voices are also releasing new material this month. They include Alice Hoffman’s The Museum Of Extraordinary Things (out 2/18); “MacArthur genius” and member of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Yiyun Li has Kinder Than Solitude (out 2/25); Claire Cameron follows her 2007 debut with The Bear (out 2/11); and one of the most eagerly awaited books of the year, Lorrie Moore’s Bark (out 2/25), arrives in February as well.

On the non-fiction front, film historian Mark Harris has followed up 2009’s Pictures At A Revolution with Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood And The Second World War (out 2/27), which follows the lives of five influential American film directors who served in WWII. New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff captures the behind the scenes story of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film with Mad As Hell: The Making Of Network And The Fateful Vision Of The Angriest Man In Movies. Also, Emily Bazelon’s national bestseller on bully culture, Sticks And Stones, gets a paperback release.


Andrea Battleground
I’m still trying to finish four books I began in January, but I’m pretty close to the end of Greg Kot’s (authorized) Mavis Staples biography, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, And The March Up Freedom’s Highway. The bio works best when Kot sticks to describing the evolution of Mavis Staples’ career, how the group itself endured such a harsh industry for almost half a century, and Pops Staples’ steer toward social activism using music. Kot ties the original Staple Singers sound to the Great Migration of the early 20th century in interesting ways, but anyone seeking an incisive look into the life of Mavis Staples may find the book’s lack of detail on that score a bit of a disappointment. This circumstance highlights the difficulty inherent in writing an authorized bio of an artist who is not only still living, but also still creating. The one anecdote I found most interesting was the description of Staples’ romance with Bob Dylan. I was aware that both acts were fans and friends of the other (as evidenced by the covering of each other’s music), and I had absorbed some version of pop legend that Dylan had offered a marriage proposal at the Newport Folk Festival. But the fact that this was an actual relationship was a revelation to me. It was a revealing touch to learn that Staples eventually ended the relationship mostly because the interracial aspect seemed an insurmountable obstacle at the time, a decision she still questions to this day. That said, Kot’s take on the singer’s immense discography is invaluable, and Staples’ indomitable spirit shines through.

[Additional note: How has the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 (commonly referred to as “Black Woodstock”) never been seen on TV or video? Apparently TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the whole thing, or at least enough of it to cut together a decent concert film. Let’s make this happen.]


Laura M. Browning
Superman was born in part out of early World War II patriotism, and has long been thought of as a distinctly American superhero. But what if he had fallen to Earth in a Ukrainian collective farm instead of in Kansas? That’s the question Mark Millar grapples with in the excellent Red Son, which I finally read after a friend loaned it to me quite some time ago. I’ve long been fascinated with the mythology of Superman but haven’t delved much into the comic books (I know, I know), and Millar’s re-imagination is superb. I also went on a non-fiction tear, reading Going Clear and The Looming Tower, both by Lawrence Wright. The former, recently out in paperback, is Wright’s back-breakingly fair look at the Church Of Scientology, which was so good that I immediately picked up the latter, a short but fascinating history of Al-Qaeda through 9/11 and the immediate aftermath. Going Clear is the stronger of the two, though perhaps that has something to do with its characters: a megalomaniacal science-fiction writer turned savior, thousands of people willing to sign billion-year contracts into servitude, plus some celebrity gossip and intrigue (Note: Don’t read this if you don’t want to hate Tom Cruise).

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more diverse authors, and since Wright piqued my interest in the church/cult of Scientology, I picked up the sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking memoir A Queer And Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein. Her voice was a little informal for my tastes—she often employs a gimmick of telling her version of a story and then backtracking, saying it was all a lie—but her story of spending 12 years in Scientology and subsequently having sex-reassignment surgery is a fascinating one. Most heartbreaking is that the memoir was written for her daughter, who will probably never read it—Bornstein hasn’t seen her in several decades, having been named a Suppressive Person when she left Scientology, which her daughter is still a member of.


Kyle Ryan
I received I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution for Christmas 2011, and though I had heard great things about it and was eager to read it, the book sat on my shelf for two years. I think I forgot about it, but also got caught up in other things I was reading. It generally takes me forever to read books, because I’m usually reading a few at a time and have an imposing number of magazines that I’m chronically behind on. I finally picked I Want My MTV up a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit. It’s a much breezier read than the two books I recently finished, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, And The Prison Of Belief (which sat on my nightstand for months) and The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler. The short chapters and oral-history format make the narrative pretty scattered, but it’s been really entertaining to hear the stories behind so many things I remember as a child. It’s also making me feel old: I remember what was apparently MTV’s first contest, sending one lucky winner to see the band Asia in Asia. I also just started The End Of Illness, Dr. David B. Agus’ anti-cancer, healthy-living tome. Cancer runs strong in my family, and just reading the introduction and first chapter of the book literally had me short of breath. That would perplex Agus, because he’s not a fear-monger. Some of the ideas he suggests are controversial (like taking anti-cholesterol drugs prophylactically), others less so (vitamins don’t help), but I’m curious to see if I’m living the right way—at least in Agus’ terms—to minimize my cancer risk. I’m also curious to see if it continues to scare the living shit out of me.

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