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’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to tuck into Lillian Ross’ Reporting Always: Writings From The New Yorker, a collection of her essays for the magazine, and this month finally provided me with the opportunity. Having more or less developed the modern template for the entertainment profile around the middle of the 20th century, this book brings together many of those pieces, and in doing so makes a strong case for the virtues of the fly-on-the-wall journalist. Ross never inserts herself into her pieces narratively; instead, she lets her perspective manifest solely through artfully chosen words that describe her subject. And what subjects: Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Clint Eastwood, Charlie Chaplin, Judi Dench, Willie Mays… and those are merely the outsize personalities around which her illuminating accounts pivot. Ross was never more at home than when she was in unfamiliar surroundings. Anyone who’s familiar with her journalism knows her facility with language was exceeded only by an ability to translate a searching and restless curiosity about all things into streamlined prose, a rare gift that manages to make lengthy, flowing profiles of great artists feel as pointed and succinct as one of her lilting, jazzy “Talk Of The Town” shorts. Both of these types of Ross’ writing are on extensive display in this excellent new book, demonstrating a passionate writer at work in her native milieu: namely, anyone willing to talk to her.
On a more lighthearted note, I began reading Krampus: The Yule Lord on a whim, as the rather silly cover put me off, with its faint whiff of hammy gothic. (Plus, I’m not a fan of oversize books, the unwieldy proportions of which this new edition from Harper Voyager retains.) But the story pleasantly surprised me, as it turned out to be a fun and fleet horror page-turner of the old-school Stephen King variety. Set in rural West Virginia, a ne’er-do-well claims Santa’s magical toy bag after witnessing supernatural creatures taking on the big red guy. Those creatures turn out to be servants of Krampus, the trickster pagan god longing to escape the chains of imprisonment that Santa bound him with centuries ago. A dark and bloody tale that hits its backwoods ground running, Krampus might even manage to unnerve with its depictions of a man being hunted by monsters in the dark, and a battle between age-old beings of mythical proportions. Author and illustrator Brom mostly lets the words carry the narrative, with the occasional pencil work—and a series of more traditional comic-book-style illustrations of the main characters, dropped into the middle of the book—feeling superfluous, if compellingly rendered. Still, it’s grisly fun.
I took a proper vacation in October, which means I also had time for proper reading. I spent 10 days in Cuba, and never one to pass up on opportunity to mix pleasure and research, I started with a book called The Other Side Of Paradise: Life In The New Cuba by Julia Cooke. Cooke is an American who lived in Havana for a few years in the early/mid-’00s, and she carefully unravels the peculiarities of Cuba, artfully parsed through stories of the people she meets. Within one chapter, I understood Cuba’s dual currency system, which no amount of pre-travel Googling had sufficiently explained, and Cooke prepared me (a little bit) for the devastating poverty I was about to witness. Cooke interviews Santería practitioners and sex workers, punks and parents, people trying to move abroad and people trying to make a life at home. In under 250 pages, Cooke’s interviews with these people form a narrative that follows Cuba from Fidel Castro’s rule to his brother’s, how Raul has changed contemporary Cuba, and why so many Cubans are still (mostly) in favor of Communism despite the pervasive poverty and governmental control. It’s a beautiful and fascinating read, especially for Americans, whose notions of Cuba probably are, like mine were, romanticized and somewhat misguided.
Since it was vacation, I also enjoyed some lighter fare, particularly Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life and The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Martin is as delightful and profound as you’d expect, and his autobiography is a bright spot in the slog of comedian’s memoirs that so often read more like one-sided sketches. The Husband’s Secret, on the other hand, is perfect beach reading: Three Sydney families find their lives hopelessly knotted together, thanks to a murder that unravels 30 years after it happened. Moriarty’s tone is light and entertaining, despite dealing with some truly awful events, and she sometimes feels more like a gossipy friend than a novel. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, and I’ll probably pick up another of Moriarty’s books next time I need something enjoyable but not so fluffy that my brain falls out.
Finally, I started The Secret History Of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, which traces the Amazon to her roots of feminism, polygraphs, and polygamy. I’m not quite halfway through, but already the book has me gaping, “Really?” at the improbabilities that led to one of the most famous women in comics. That Wonder Woman’s creator was also the inventor of the first lie-detector isn’t even the most astonishing bit of history that Lepore has uncovered.
Before I came on with The A.V. Club and began reviewing newly released books, I was making my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners. 2005 winner Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has been gathering dust and guilt on my shelf for nearly two years as I set aside my Pulitzer goals, but a lack of new books in the winter months means I’ve finally picked it up. Halfway through, I can see why Robinson won the literary honor: Each page is thick with sentiment, so rich with heady rumination that it can get a little overwhelming. The entire novel is a single, sprawling letter a dying father is writing to his young son. The father is a pastor who lived most of his life in the isolated, rural town of Gilead, Iowa. He writes in the 1950s, but describes much of his early life in the 1800s, and goes all the way back to the Civil War when sharing his grandfather’s stories. A series of memories, stories, tangents, and stray observations are masterfully woven together for an absorbing read that’s meditative on the human condition with almost no action or adventure whatsoever (so far, anyway).
Then there’s Notorious RBG: The Life And Times Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. So much more than just a clever play on words, the book shows how Ruth Bader Ginsburg has played a major role in shaping the law, and is an especially outspoken feminist. Quietly badass, she gained fame for her withering dissents, so awesome and poignant they outshine the backward majority opinions they’re paired with (and you know if Ginsburg delivers a dissent, the majority opinion is going to be ass-backwards). Author Shana Knizhnik was a law student in awe of RBG when she started the Tumblr dedicated to the Supreme Court justice, which took on an internet life of its own thanks to her classmate’s clever “notorious RBG” pun. Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon describe both the internet pun phenomenon and Ginsburg’s life and ethos in clean, compelling prose that makes for a fun and quick read. Don’t mistake this for an pretty but vacuous coffee-table book: Notorious RBG is full of fascinating stories and simple breakdowns of law. Most interesting is the parallel narratives of how Ginsburg’s work to uphold women’s rights coincides with their disturbing erosion.
- For the Beatles fan: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (out November 17)
- For The Andy Griffith Show nostalgist: Andy & Don: The Making Of A Friendship And A Classic American TV Show by Daniel De Visé (out November 3)
- For the Mary-Louise Parker fan: Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (out November 10)
- For the Tom Petty fan: Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes (out November 10)
- For the disco enthusiast: To Disco, With Love: The Records That Defined An Era by David Hamsley (out November 24)
- For the fantasy reader who likes plenty of action: The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson
- For people who still like Rainn Wilson: The Bassoon King: My Life In Art, Faith, And Idiocy by Rainn Wilson (out November 10)
- For those addicted to gripping thrillers: Here & There by Joshua V. Scher (out November 1)
- For the Clarissa Explains It All fan: Things I Can’t Explain by Mitchell Kriegman (out November 10)