We’ve expanded the regular AVQ&A discussion prompts to ask three of our regular contributors (and you) a simple question once per month: What have you read in the past month, or what are you currently reading? This month, books editor Andrea Battleground, senior writer Jason Heller, and copy editor Caity PenzeyMoog get the spotlight. If you have suggestions for future AVQ&A questions, big or small, you can email them to us here.
Taking a cue from Stuart Dybek’s excellent Reading List from last week and the good folks over at the Book Fight! podcast, I’ve decided to start reading more short stories. The lack of time commitment involved works well with what is shaping up to be a busy summer. So far I’ve read Kate Braverman’s “Tall Tales From The Mekong Delta,” which is often hailed as one of the best short stories of the 20th century (it’s certainly one of the most anthologized); Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Grasshopper And The Bell Cricket,” which is just as lovely as Dybek described; Primo Levi’s “A Tranquil Star,” which is interesting in the way it stretches a reader’s idea of how much “narrative” qualifies it as a story. In that way, it’s similar to Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” which is often identified as a poem, not a story. I also read “The Lake” by Tananarive Due, and I really don’t understand why Due isn’t more famous than she is. Anyone who is a fan of unconventional supernatural tales should check her out.
This month, I also read Kathleen Rooney’s O, Democracy!, an autobiographical novel if ever there was one. Rooney is an award-winning poet and a former staffer in Senator Dick Durbin’s office, and her debut novel centers on Colleen, a staffer from an unnamed Illinois senator’s office in 2008. (Hint: Not the one who was running for president.) Rooney makes an interesting choice in the book to never actually name, well, anything—probably in an attempt to convince the reader that this is a fictional account and to avoid legal entanglements. But instead of lulling the reader into a fictional headspace despite the many real-life circumstances, it proves more than a little distracting. Why not just say “Northwestern” or “Hillary Clinton” or “the John Marshall Law School” instead of repeatedly referring to “the Big 10 school in Evanston” or “the female presidential candidate whose husband used to be president” or “that third-rate law school on State Street by the public library”? But about a third into the book, it stops seeming like a thinly veiled hatchet job aimed at a writer’s former employers and becomes something else: Couched inside the melodramatic tale of an artistic millennial’s quarterlife crisis and the behind-the-curtain reveal of the psychosexual antics of political office life is a real rumination on what it means to be a patriot and how to reconcile that with remaining true to an established set of ideals.
When I read Philip Hoare’s 2008 book The Whale (titled Leviathan in his native England) last year, I was hoping for a great piece of writing about, well, whales. The Whale turned out to be so much more than that—and Hoare’s new book, The Sea Inside, goes even deeper. The Sea Inside is, like The Whale, as much of a memoir as a book about the ocean and those who live in, around, and above it. But so far, The Sea Inside is a much more flowing and freeform affair. I’m only about 50 pages in, but already I’m in awe of Hoare’s ability to train a still, philosophical eye on his relationship with the sea, the way it tugs at his bloodstream, and the kind of osmosis of the soul that seems to happen whenever mankind allows itself to commune with the world’s waters, spiritually and artistically. There’s a scientific bent to the book, too, but Hoare doesn’t go overboard (so to speak) with oceanography or biology; instead he uses quiet prose connect the bits of fact and flashes of insight that he drifts across throughout his travels. As a bonus, the text is interspersed with vivid, elegant line drawings of seabirds—and, naturally, whales.
I enjoy reading literature aimed at teenage girls (like a lot of media targeted at that demographic, it’s often dismissed and looked down on), and recently read Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up. Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket) chronicles the relationship and breakup of Min and Ed, as told by 16-year-old Min. I don’t know how he does it, but Handler perfectly captures what it s like to be a 16-year-old; some chapters could have been pulled directly from my high school diary. I was left awed that Handler accurately described how devastating that first, young breakup can be without making fun of the experience. It’s refreshing and pitch-perfect, like everything Handler writes.
I tore through Why We Broke Up in about two days, but the other book I’m reading this month—Cordelia Fine’s Delusions Of Gender—is taking longer to chew through. Delusions examines the assumption that women and men are “hardwired” differently—the taken-for-granted knowledge that gender determines the brain’s wiring, and that wiring is the reason women are better at pushing a vacuum and men are better at sawing wood. Fine examines these assumptions and exposes them for what they (and the “science” supporting them) are: total bullshit. With great patience and humor, Fine takes what should be a bone dry academic text and writes an engaging, eye-opening piece about how many forces in our society—from sexist research to hegemonic power structures to historical, political, and economic systems—trick us into thinking that gender determines who we are. Gloria Steinem said it best: Culture is successful politics. That can be a big pill to swallow, especially when examining gender. So it’s a relief that Fine tackles the issue with such uncompromising gusto, exposing constructions of gender to be nothing more than our mind’s own delusions.
Notable June book releases:
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (out 6/3)
Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek (out 6/3)
Paper Lantern by Stuart Dybek (out 6/3)
The Rise & Fall Of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (out 6/10)
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (out 6/3)
The Todd Glass Situation by Todd Glass (out 6/3)
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters (out 6/3)
Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton (out 6/10)
The Silent History by Eli Horowitz/Matthew Derby/Kevin Moffett (out 6/10)
The Last Magazine by Michael Hastings (out 6/17)
The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (out 6/10)
Poking A Dead Frog by Mike Sacks (out 6/24)
The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2) by Robert Galbraith (out 6/19)
Take This Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (out 6/3)
No Country by Kalyan Ray (out 6/17)
A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (out 6/12)