We’re moving in November, so I’m getting ready to box up my books, which means that most of the reading I’ve been doing lately is the kind done standing up, when you’re picking through your shelves and can’t resist the urge to page through a book you forgot you owned or a book you’d been meaning to revisit. Plays are especially dangerous, because they read quickly; before you know it, you’re 20 pages in and might as well sit down and make it through to the end. That’s how I found myself finally finishing Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew Of Malta, which had been sitting on the far end of a shelf for so long that the laminated cover had stuck to the bookcase. (It helped that I had just re-read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great, Part One a couple of months ago.)
I’m a sucker for Marlowe’s sense of momentum and for the weight he puts into his blank verse, which is what gives his antiheroes their edge; “As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights / And kill sick people groaning under walls / Sometimes I go about and poison wells” slays, for lack of a better term. (I can’t help but be reminded of an anonymous 17th century note on the poet’s death, which Marlowe super-fan T.S. Eliot once used as an epigraph: “Marloe was stabd with a dagger, and dyed swearing.”) This is anything but an original observation, but the use of asides here gives Barabas—who murders dozens of characters in the course of exacting revenge against Malta for stripping him of his wealth—a discrete psychology that’s more or less unique in all the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater I’ve read.
In terms of new books, I’ve been reading a galley copy of W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, an intriguing history of the cult of American clothing—be it denim work-wear or Ivy League campus looks—in Japanese street fashion; inevitably, it opens up a whole can of worms regarding authenticity and appropriation. Part of the reason it’s taking me so long to get through Ametora—a relatively slim book—is because I’m the kind of person who tends to read through three or four books at a time, and right now, I’m taking a big, note-taking dive back through the second half of Friedrich Engels’ The Origin Of The Family, Private Property And The State, an essential book that I’ve been meaning to revisit for a damn long time.
Engels—best known as Karl Marx’s somehow-even-more-bushily-bearded intellectual partner—wrote Origin Of The Family very quickly, about a year after Marx’s death, inspired by some notes his colleague had left behind about Lewis H. Morgan, the pioneering American anthropologist who got the ball rolling on kinship systems. It’s about as accessible as cornerstone historical materialist texts get—flawed, sometimes overreaching, but animated by that compulsion to link, group, and unify that always defines a way of thinking in its prime. Even that mouthful of a title doesn’t sum up what Engels is trying to get at here, with subjects running from feminism and monogamy to feudalism and the development of policing.
A lot of people think their experiences at a job would make a great book/TV show/movie, but most of them are wrong—it’s a lot harder than it seems to make that sort of thing compelling. That said, people in certain industries have an edge. You know the housekeeping staffs at hotels have seen some shit. Ditto people who clean up crime scenes. Also: garbage men, which plays into Derf Backderf’s new graphic novel, Trashed: An Ode To The Crap Job Of All Crap Jobs (out November 3). While Backderf did spend a year working as a garbage man more than 30 years ago, he smartly uses that experience to inform Trashed’s fiction, not turn it into a graphical retelling of his experiences. He also makes another interesting choice in using the story as a springboard to discuss our problem with waste, from the danger poised by landfills (even ostensibly safe ones) to how garbage trucks actually work to the various types of garbage we generate. It’s an interesting hybrid of narrative and documentary-style storytelling. While it’s tough to top Backderf’s “I was high school friends with Jeffrey Dahmer” memoir My Friend Dahmer, Trashed is both entertaining and unnerving.
Speaking of unnerving, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a disturbing look into social media shame culture, and its very real consequences. Ronson speaks to the people involved in high-profile cases, in some cases gaining access that no other journalist has had. He spends time with Justine Sacco, for instance, who made a joke on Twitter before boarding an international flight and unknowingly became a worldwide trending topic while in the air, before being fired from her job. Ronson, who confesses to participating in numerous Twitter lynch mobs in the past, chronicles stories like Sacco’s empathetically, but without simply portraying them as victims. In the case of something like Donglegate, he shows how the person who initiated the shaming ended up paying a higher price than the victims of the shaming. These stories are often more complex than they seem, and Ronson does a good job spelling them out. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is enough to scare people off social media for good.
Because it goes so well with deepening autumnal flavors and creeping shadows, and to re-visit an old favorite, I just finished Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. I’m not as charmed as I was years ago, but it’s still insanely gripping, and the first book I’ve read in a long time that’s genuinely hard to put down (even though I know what happens!). It follows characters tracing their way through history to Count Dracula’s real-life inspiration, the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad The Impaler. It’s a refreshing re-imagining of the Dracula genre, envisioning the monster as a combination of freaky historical figure and a stalking presence who may or may not be just off-curtain, waiting for his big entrance. The book’s structure, while kind of annoying, makes for an absolutely riveting mystery, with two and sometimes three different plots unfolding at the same time, overlapping in present-past-more distant past story threads that hint at each other’s outcomes without giving anything away. There’s a fair bit of Orientalism in Kostova’s Europe-trotting odyssey—Romanian women are dark-eyed beauties, Hungarian men are swarthy, that sort of thing—and Kostova can get Tolkien-esque in her tendency to bore the reader with tons of superfluous details on the setting and history of her world. (It’s the real world, but still. One description of the rugged countryside will do.) The mystery gallops at such a pace that those things almost don’t matter, though, and I’m sure I’ll be picking up the Historian again in a few years.
I’m also reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, and update of her 2008 essay that eventually spawned the term “mansplaining.” Solnit didn’t coin the term, and in her updated conclusion, writes that she has mixed feelings about it and rarely uses it. Her essay is far more interesting than I thought it would be, thoughtful and introspective—not at all the slipshod sort of work that would do well on BuzzFeed but quickly be forgotten, which I honestly thought it might be. The other essays collected in this little book expand on her feminist critique, beautifully connecting the lived experiences of women everywhere to the systems of patriarchy and oppression that creates them. Solnit writes crisply and clearly, with a poetic touch that doesn’t detract from the strong arguments she’s making.
- For the Drew Barrymore fan: Wildflower by Drew Barrymore (out October 27)
- For the David Spade fan: David Spade Is Almost Interesting by David Spade (out October 27)
- For the Lou Reed fan: Dirty Blvd.: The Life And Music Of Lou Reed by Aidan Levy (out October 15)
- For the Patti Smith fan: Patti Smith Collected Lyrics, 1970-2015 by Patti Smith (out October 27)
- For the Sara Bareilles fan: Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song by Sara Bareilles (out October 6)
- For the Michael Jackson fan: MJ: The Genius Of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper (out October 6)
- For the Tyler Oakley fan: Binge by Tyler Oakley (out October 20)
- For the Salem enthusiast: The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
- For the Dracula enthusiast: Dracula FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Count From Transylvania by Bruce Scivally (out in October)
- For the witches enthusiast: Witches Of America by Alex Mar (out October 20)
- For the dated sci-fi enthusiast: She Came From Beyond! by Nadine Darling (out October 13)
- For the H.P. Lovecraft fan: Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard (out October 20)