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.
I don’t know much about James Hanley, aside from the fact that a lot of the folks I consider smart on literary matters think he was a greatly underrated writer, that he was prosecuted for obscenity in the 1930s, and that he came from a family of sailors and often wrote about the sea. I picked up a couple of his novels at a used book store a few years ago, and now I’m finally getting around to reading one. It’s called The Ocean. It’s a wartime novel, published in 1941, about the crewmen of a torpedoed ship, adrift in a lifeboat. Men in a vast expanse of the unknown, demoralized, increasingly desperate.
Hanley works in short and uneven paragraphs, which means that when your eyes scan the page, what you see is a lot of white space and irregular indentations that resemble the printing of a stock ticker. The page seems empty and somehow coded. The prose is strict and clear, and Hanley keeps up a steady forward momentum by occasionally omitting commas, as though he were omitting breaths. (Sample paragraph: “Hearing loud noises Stone realized that Curtain was awake. Gaunt had woken him up. Gaunt was asking Curtain for a drink of water.”)
Faulkner called Hanley’s language “a good clean cyclone.” I haven’t gotten to the cyclone yet, but what I’ve read moves steadily, as ego-shrinkingly indifferent as water or weather. Strong stuff.
I don’t know why I keep reading books about music, because they’re so rarely satisfying. But all that time spent slogging through bios and appreciations has paid off a little bit recently: I just finished the slim-but-engaging In The All-Night Café (Chicago Review Press) by Stuart David, an original member of Belle & Sebastian. The subtitle is A Memoir Of Belle And Sebastian’s Formative Year, and it’s exactly that—no philosophy, no theory, just the weird, slightly magical story of a strange place and time that spawned an important band. The great thing is that the book somehow heightens the band’s mystique rather than bursting a bubble: It really came together at the world’s most unusual, half-assed music school, and the recording sessions—masterminded by the band’s other Stuart, Stuart Murdoch—really did seem like fairy tales. The band had barely played together before performing in public, and yet somehow some of the greatest songs of the past 20 years came to life.
I’m also reading another first-person account of a specific time and place in rock history, though one that failed to catch on in quite the same way: Jon Fine’s Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear). Fine was a member of the influential but never very big Bitch Magnet, and his memoir reflects on the band’s formation, when his goal was to find a few thousand fans—“the people who loved music so much that they let it destroy their lives.” Fine, who’s now an editor at Inc. Magazine, still has a funny chip on his shoulder about the slog of the early years, and he takes some joy in shitting on music he despises. But fond memories abound, too, of life on the road the first time around—the clubs weren’t nice, but the experience was life-changing. And I haven’t even gotten to the part of the book where he talks about Bitch Magnet’s 2011 reunion tour.
I’m also in the middle of Happy Mondays: Excess All Areas, which so far is heavy on details about the band’s earliest, completely disorganized years. It’s a wonder, honestly, that they were able to even practice, with one guy’s dad setting up the practice PA and basically teaching the rest of them how to play together and make it sound okay. Things are about to get exciting, as the band’s dancer—yeah, he just danced—Bez has just discovered ecstasy, and is keen to introduce it not just to his bandmates, but all of Manchester circa 1987. The Mondays’ exploits once they had some money are pretty legendary, and so far the book is rich with detail about their younger lives.
This may be because my birthday is on the summer solstice, but I have always had a soft spot for the summer novel. There’s something about that three-month timeline—in which anything could happen!—that makes these shorter works that use summer as a structure magically potent.
Here are three summer novels I return to annually (My name is Gwen and I’m a chronic re-reader). They all feature a delightfully self-deprecating first-person narrator, an elusive object of desire, and a timeline that focuses on the best three months of the year.
1. Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus: Really a novella, this early Roth work tells the tale of a working-class boy who tries to jump social status by dating the shimmering Brenda Patimkin, the Jewish Daisy Buchanan. Roth has never been funnier than in this story of a short but charged love affair. As protagonist Neil plays basketball against Brenda’s younger sister: “With the Lord’s blessing and a soft breeze, I made the layup.” Or his description of his beloved’s estate, so different from his own homestead: “Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!”
2. Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh: Chabon now has a Pulitzer Prize and a host of other credits, but I still love his debut, a classic coming-of-age story about a recent college graduate who develops a new set of friends during his last summer in Pittsburgh. This entertaining yarn also features Chabon’s now-legendary descriptions, as when protagonist Art’s girlfriend cooks him dinner: “The meal was four or five months too early, perhaps: some kind of pot roast, a thick sheaf of asparagus, and baked potatoes the size of shoes.” Or, more succinctly, the unnerving loss of stability in post-college life: “I thought, I fancied, that in a moment, I would be standing on nothing at all, and for the first time in my life, I needed the wings none of us has.”
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: This would be my favorite book even if it didn’t mention my birthday (Daisy asks: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?”). If you’ve never read it, of course you need to, and summer is the perfect time, as Fitzgerald’s descriptions of lush lawns and all-night parties and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock transcend as much now as they did almost a century ago. Gatsby also boasts the greatest last line in all of literature: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” Right now I’m also reading West Of Sunset, the fictionalized version of Fitzgerald’s final years (with supporting characters like Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker making this another volume that’s tough to put down), and it saddens me that he never knew how much his best novel would eventually be revered.
- For online enthusiasts wondering about their humanity: Book Of Numbers by Joshua Cohen (out June 9)
- For Jorge Luis Borges fans: A Brief History Of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas (out in English June 9)
- For the Stephen King fans: Finders Keepers by Stephen King (out June 2)
- For the burgeoning Marxist: Primates Of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin (out June 2)
- For Dr. Ruth fans or anyone looking to up the joie de vivre in their lives: The Doctor Is In by Dr. Ruth Westheimer (out June 2)
- For the YA fan sick of dystopian futures and longing for a single, contained story: Deadly Design by Debra Dockter (out June 2)
- For the Dickens nostalgist: Death And Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (out June 23)
- For those addicted to gripping thrillers: Ruthless by John Rector (out June 1)
- For readers looking for a light summer read: The Lake Season by Hannah McKinnon (out June 2)
- For the cyclist: The Last Man In The Tour De France by Max Leonard (out June 15)
- For those who like to drink wine while they read: Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave (out June 2)