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.
Because it’s one of my favorite books, and because I’m a bit of a Cold War buff, I recently reread Michael Dobbs’ One Minute To Midnight, a thoroughly researched and grippingly written account of the Cuban missile crisis. (I’ve praised One Minute To Midnight on The A.V. Club before.) My second read-through left me newly exhilarated by Dobbs’ brisk, clear narrative style, so I moved on to his earlier book Down With Big Brother: The Fall Of The Soviet Empire. Dobbs was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the ’80s—during the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland—and he headed the Moscow bureau from 1988 to 1993. While Down With Big Brother is not a firsthand account (instead drawing from a wide range of sources), Dobbs’ extraordinary experiences help him add flavor to this tale of political dysfunction on a massive scale.
The author builds a convincing case that the USSR’s efforts to reform itself, while admirable in theory, only hastened its demise in practice. By the time Communist leaders realized that their centrally planned economy was in shambles, Dobbs argues, the nation was already in free fall. Mikhail Gorbachev’s progressive glasnost and perestroika initiatives, meant to make the Communist party more open and responsive, also provided outlets for pent-up social unrest that consumed the Soviet system with breathtaking speed. Yet as I read Dobbs’ fascinating tales of reckless incompetence and self-deception among Kremlin pooh-bahs and apparatchiks, the real shocker is that the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did. I’m devouring this book, and I look forward to reading the final entry in Dobbs’ Cold War trilogy, Six Months In 1945.
When I was a kid, the Book-Of-The-Month Club was so huge, there was even a child version, and my mom signed me up. So I have been saving these great ’70s-era hardcovers of books like Harriet The Spy and Alvin Fernald, Superweasel ever since, in the off chance that I might have kids and they might turn out to be bookworms like myself. Now that I do have kids, I have been anxiously waiting for the day that they would be ready for my old copy of A Wrinkle In Time. (Was the crib too early? Apparently.) Now they’re finally old enough to be “chapter book” readers, but Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Award winner was still a bit out of their range (tesseracts and such). So I started reading it aloud to them at bedtime a few weeks ago. I have a habit of reading too fast (impatiently wanting to find out what happens next), so reading out loud was a great way to take some time with the book. The kids and I talked about what Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit might have looked like, as we all tried to understand what the fourth dimension is. I always thought the planet Camazotz was a knock on Communism, but A Wrinkle In Time was less political than I remembered, the space-exploring science fiction offering more of a life-affirming spiritual bent than I recognized before. The warm realism of the Murry family juxtaposed against their tesseract-ing trips to other planets won over my kids, who are now looking forward to the next volume in L’Engle’s Time Quintet: A Wind In The Door. Decades-long mission accomplished.
For my own reading, in an effort to escape Chicago’s endless winter, I’ve been leaning toward escapist books, featuring sunny European climes. I just finished Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, an easy read about an extended family that rents a house in Spain for two weeks. Naturally, many brimming family conflicts rush to the surface, but Straub’s descriptions of the family visiting heavenly beaches and drinking thick Spanish coffee by the pool were enough to transcend me from my current gray slushy backdrop. Even more so in this vein was Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, a trip to 1962 Italy with some fascinating crossovers to the filming of Cleopatra, a U.K. open-air festival, and the current Hollywood studio system. Richard Burton himself even makes an appearance in this story of a young starlet taking refuge in an idyllic Italian coastal town. I took refuge in Walter’s pages, where generations unfold, and ruined yet beautiful people find redemption.
Going on vacation last week I reached for a tried-and-true favorite: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I read it four or five times through high school and college, so I hadn’t picked it up in at least four years. The story is interesting less for the plot itself than for how it can be seen in practically every romanic film I’ve ever seen. In broad strokes, Jane’s storyline is the storyline of most characters whose story is one of romance. It’s a cultural studies thesis just waiting to be written (maybe it has been already). But it isn’t actually the plot that makes Jane Eyre one of my favorite books that I continue to revisit. The real enjoyment is in Brontë’s rich, textured writing. She takes her time setting scenes, creating visually dense descriptions of Jane’s surroundings, be it the bleak girls school she attends or the bleak, lonely moors she finds a home in. (There’s a lot of bleakness in Jane’s life). Jane is a heroine so vivid and witty that seeing the world through her perspective is what carries the reader through the book. Written in 1847, it’s remarkable how enjoyable Brontë’s prose still is, full of pitch-perfect personal observations and stray analyses on the the world, and her place in it. Of course, some aspects are obviously dated, though what’s more baffling to me than Victorian era manners is Jane’s scarily steadfast adherence to religious rules. Still, it’s a proto-feminist book that’s fascinating in Jane’s attempts to navigate male-controlled society and the men who would try to control her, and how successful she is in asserting agency despite Victorian gender norms.
Speaking of gender norms, I’m also reading the fantastic Bitch Planet, a new comic by Kelly Sue DeConnick from Image Comics. Three issues in, it’s like Orange Is The New Black set in a future semi-dystopian world in which women who don’t comply to gender norms are arrested and shipped off to a planet prison, where they fight for survival against their “father” captors and patriarchy. As I get more into comic books in general I struggle with how quickly they are over—one issue of Bitch Planet is finished much too quickly. But the few pages are packed with social critique and commentary; fiction is a great way to study our real social issues, as placing characters in a world other than our own gives us some distance from which to examine social ills like patriarchy. In that sense, Bitch Planet is a succinct and fun text examining gender and how women are treated, as the motivations men have for sending women to Bitch Planet are eerily familiar, despite the outlandish premise.
Notable March book releases, assorted
- For the WWII enthusiast, or anyone disaster inclined: Dead Wake by Erik Larson (out March 10)
- For the compulsive diary-keeper, new parent, or mid-life philosopher
- : Ongoingness: The End Of A Diary by Sarah Manguso (out March 3)
- For the Klosterman fan who isn’t ready for the snow to melt
- : Know Your Beholder by Adam Rapp (out March 3)
- For the aspiring ichthyologist who also enjoys bleak novels of domestic disquietude
- : Aquarium by David Vann (out March 3)
- or anyone who’s ever regretted pressing “send”
- : So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (out March 12)
- For those addicted to gripping thrillers: Persona by A.V. Club contributor Genevieve Valentine (out March 10)