Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from books editor Andrea Battleground:
What book from years past did you finally get around to reading this year, latecomer?
I’m not really sure what I was up to or what I was reading in May 2013—man, I really should start that reading journal I keep intending to do; there’s a 2015 New Year’s resolution I may have a shot at keeping—but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah slipped right by me at the time of its release. I was already an Adichie fan (her Half Of A Yellow Sun is also worth picking up), so I took note as the rave reviews trickled in and placed it on my to-read list. Yet as 2013 wore on, it kept slipping lower and lower on the pile of books sitting on my nightstand. I finally got to it earlier this year. (I’ll admit I was helped along by Beyoncé’s savvy decision to include part of Adichie’s TED Talk about feminism on “Flawless.”) Now I can join the chorus praising this novel as a masterpiece. Adichie’s examination of life as an American African (and its distinction from being African American) blasts all sides without becoming a scolding screed, dissecting 21st century blackness while lampooning the platitudes often used to obscure how race is discussed both in the States and internationally. It’s been the upcoming film adaptation I’m looking forward to most ever since the dream casting of Lupita Nyong’o in the lead role was announced back in June.
I’m not sure that “finally” applies here, since it just came out last year (and was one of The A.V. Club’s favorites of 2013), but I read George Saunders’ incredible Tenth Of December: Stories this year. The hyperbolic reviews were right: The collection of previously published shorts (from such prestigious publications as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s) is absolutely masterful. With all the talk of the written word’s dying breaths—did you know they’re making audiobooks without accompanying actual books now?—Saunders proves there are still things that can’t be conveyed any other way. I actually had to put the book down after the first story, “Victory Lap,” because I was honest-to-God breathless.
Laura M. Browning
When Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky came out in 2010, it made a bit of a splash—I remember reading interviews and book reviews and mentally filing it away on my “to read” list. Four years later, I finally made it, and it was every bit as extraordinary as I could have hoped. The kernel of the story comes from a few real-life events—a newspaper article Durrow read, her own Norwegian-African American heritage—but the meat is spun from Durrow’s imagination. The book is about race (a timely issue now, as ever) and love and perseverance, with writing that is beautiful but not showy, and a story that meanders in just the right ways. It was definitely a book worth waiting for, and I’m already planning to re-read it.
Under The Skin was an amazing movie, but reading that the screenwriter refused to read the book it was based on made me curious—especially when the director said it doesn’t matter, because the versions are “spiritually” connected. So I picked the book up myself to see how those spiritual connections look. Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under The Skin is much more science-fiction-oriented than the film: The basic idea of an alien disguised as a woman, and luring in men, is still there, but the book gets far uglier about what happens to the men, what the protagonist endured to reach Earth, why she stays, and what the costs are. It’s a beautifully written novel: fantastical, but more grounded and specific than the film. I’ve been on a Faber kick since, reading The Courage Consort and The Fire Gospel before digging into his massive 2002 historical novel The Crimson Petal And The White. One of the most remarkable things about getting caught up on Faber’s work: Like Kazuo Ishiguro, he’s all over the place in terms of period, genre, and style, but in any mode, he’s enjoyable and insightful, and he builds terrific characters and settings.
It’s gotten its fair share of praise, but I’m so glad I got a chance to read Gone Girl before I saw David Fincher’s version of the book everyone else had read on the beach the year before. I loved Fincher’s effort, especially the work of the divine Rosamund Pike, but I was glad I dove into the fucked-up world of one of the great female antiheroes and her equally undeserving husband before seeing someone else’s take. Rather than be disappointed by the film adaptation because of my affection for the book, reading Gone Girl only enhanced Fincher’s vision for me. But as much as I enjoyed the story—I’m sucker for a good mystery—I really cherished author Gillian Flynn’s take on the female condition. The “cool girl” section in particular stuck with me even more than the story’s twists and turns.
I’d been hearing a lot about White Girls before I saw it on a friend’s shelf and impulsively borrowed it. The choice did not disappoint. White Girls is the most personally powerful book I’ve read in years. In fact, I was so engrossed in Hilton Als’ work that, one day, when asked by a stranger what I was reading, I found it literally impossible to speak. It sounds unbelievably corny, but I really did feel like my voice had been replaced with the writer’s. And that was before I got to some of the more formally audacious writing, especially an imagined conversation between Als and Richard Pryor’s sister. This successful blend of cultural criticism and memoir—with Als’ voice so insistent and powerful that it’s impossible to deny him, the way it shapes our understanding of figures ranging from Eminem to Flannery O’Connor and how they represent forces beyond any one individual—is downright inspiring.
A few years ago my mother pushed me to read Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants, calling it one of the best novels she ever read. I was far less exuberant, finding the characters and plot pretty dull, but the circus itself captivated me as a setting. So when I spotted Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 novel The Night Circus on the shelf of a used bookstore this year I grabbed it on impulse. The circus itself, a magical black-and-white spectacle that Morgenstern paints in gorgeous detail, is still the strongest part of this fantasy, but I was also captivated by tales of the people pulled into its influence due to a desire to experience something incredible and share it with others. Like them, I found myself with a strong desire to share and talk about The Night Circus.
The actual proportions of Hitchcock by François Truffaut had always put me off from reading it, no matter how many times I encountered someone and the book came up yet again in a conversation about film or writing. It’s not that it’s a long book, it’s that it is in the shape of a high-school textbook, making it uncomfortable to read in bed, or sitting in a chair. It’s a book best read on a table, and who wants to read at a table, unless you’re in school? But I finally read it this year and if you’ve graduated from film school without having to read it, or you plan on attending film school, just read this book then ask for a refund from your university, or skip film school altogether. It’s absolutely essential for anyone who wants to know how masterpieces are made (or how to tell a story), as discussed by two masters. I also got around to reading Independent People by celebrated Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. It’s one of those books you keep hearing about, then you pick up a copy, feel its weight, read what it’s about on the back jacket (sheep farming and rain, mostly), and decide everyone must be deluded. But there’s something magical about that novel. Imagine Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones, but without any rings or thrones or fantasy, just regular people living in the middle of nowhere, struggling to survive. There must be magic in it, because you can’t stop reading it.
Damn you, bargain bin. Look, I watched the first season of Game Of Thrones like everyone else. Liked it. Didn’t love it (Dinklage notwithstanding). Didn’t feel compelled to continue (there’s a lot of TV to watch for this gig—don’t give me any guff). But my blissful ignorance was shattered a few months ago by a 50-cent copy of A Game Of Thrones. Less than a buck—what harm could that do? And sure, the book, like the show, was good but not great—again, Tyrion Lannister notwithstanding, I could use a little more lightness in my epic fantasy reading. But having seen these characters in the flesh first gave me the necessary CliffsNotes method to keep the approximately 300 characters straight, and if George R.R. Martin’s prose got a little stolid at times, the memory of the actors’ line readings could carry me through (especially Dinklage’s). So I’m stuck scouring bargain bins for A Clash Of Kings—but no dice. Now I’m out real money and my reading schedule is booked solid for the next few months. That’s how they get you. Damn you, bargain bin.
I was always going to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire eventually; Lolita is among my short list of favorite novels, and I’ve always been a sucker for structural gimmickry and layered narrative puzzles. But I resisted until this year, largely due to my deep-seated fear of poetry—the novel consists of a 999-line poem by the fictional poet John Shade, followed by rambling, discursive commentary by the possibly even more fictional Charles Kinbote, which makes up the bulk of the work. I was worried that if I tried to tackle the book in any but the most receptive of moods, I’d burn out on verse before I got to “the good stuff.” But of course, when I finally did pick up a copy at the library, I found that I had underestimated Nabokov. “Pale Fire” the poem is just as funny, engaging, and intriguingly cryptic as the novel it lends its name to. And even beyond the book’s tale of foreign lands, eccentric academics, and bumbling assassins, reading it introduced me to the equally fascinating world of Pale Fire conspiracy theorists, who are constantly schisming and warring with one another over what the hell the book actually means.
I’d always been vaguely aware that the 1969 John Wayne movie True Grit was based on a well-loved book, but it wasn’t until seeing the Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation (also belatedly) that I was motivated to read it. Charles Portis’ prose is so sharp and engaging that it’s easy to put both movies out of your head, and quickly discover why the book is considered a classic. True Grit is as aware of the far-reaching consequences and ultimate futility of violence as any Cormac McCarthy Western, but it’s told with enough wit and charm to be an easy page-turner. Most of that wit and charm comes courtesy of levelheaded, irascible Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old narrator determined to avenge her murdered father. While you naturally root for her to catch her father’s killer and see justice done, the real joy of the book is watching Mattie use every ounce of her determination and cunning to cajole the bigger, older, more violent men on her side into doing what needs to be done.
I had heard rumblings about The Wolf Of Wall Street when it was first published in 2007. One review said something about it being Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas meets Goodfellas, so I was immediately intrigued. Then, I forgot all about it until Scorsese came along with his film adaptation, which I absolutely loved. I picked up the book shortly afterward, and it’s a really fun ride. There’s obviously a bit more sympathy directed toward Belfort because it’s his sob story, but it’s more wild than whiny. Danny Porush (portrayed in the movie as Donnie Azoff by Jonah Hill) is an absolute monster compared to Jordan, but with the inevitable backlash the film received from the real protagonists, it’s hard to separate truth from fiction. According to the book: The yacht did indeed sink. The Quaalude crawl? Real. What the film missed is Jordan’s insecurities, and his unconditional love for his children, no matter how incapacitated he was on chemicals. You can see why Scorsese was drawn to the story, as Belfort may as well have opened the book with, “As far back as I could remember I always wanted to make money.”
I read Junot Díaz’s story collection Drown shortly after loving The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, and I was a little disappointed, only because I love the short story form on its own merits, and to me a lot of Drown felt like the author teeing up for his novel, with which it shares some characters. As such, I wasn’t in as big a hurry to read This Is How You Lose Her when it first came out in 2012, or even after I bought the paperback; the book’s seeming framework of a guy cheating on girlfriend after girlfriend didn’t make it sound all that appealing (and while I try to separate artists’ personal lives from their work, Díaz’s interviews about his own problems in that area didn’t help). But Lose Her made its way to the top of my to-read pile this year, and whether I was just more accustomed to the idea of revisiting these characters, thirstier for Díaz’s prose after a couple years off, or actually noticing an improvement in his short-form skills (let’s say a combination of the three), I was impressed anew by his ability, from description to rhythm to distinct voice, all the way down to the sentence level. I probably won’t wait so long on the next one.
I keep a checklist of the classic books I somehow missed during my high school and college education. I’m currently about a third of the way through Anna Karenina, and The Age Of Innocence is next on the docket. While I generally enjoy these literary classics, there’s also an element of “taking your medicine” when it comes to reading them. And I expected to feel similarly about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I tackled earlier this year. What I found instead was a novel as engrossing as anything I’ve ever read, classic or otherwise. Beloved follows an escaped slave named Sethe and her daughter Denver as they welcome a mysterious spirit into their Cincinnati home. Heart-wrenching but never alienating, the novel presents a complicated family history interwoven with the slave experience. Behind a compelling veneer of magical realism, Beloved lays bare the horrors of slavery and how those horrors continue to resonant long after the system is gone.
I don’t tend to have as much time to read as I’d like these days, so most of what I do read is usually something I cannot feel guilty about… like, say, a book by someone I’m about to interview, which is easy enough to rationalize as being research. That’s how I came to read I Know This Much: From Soho To Spandau by Gary Kemp. If the title isn’t enough of a tip-off, Kemp was a founding member and remains the chief songwriter of Spandau Ballet, and he’s also done some time as an actor (he and his brother Martin played the title characters in the 1990 film The Krays), but these days he’s back with the Ballet again. I’d heard the book was a good read, and I was not steered wrong: In addition to providing a look into Kemp’s life as a child actor and his transition into music, he was smack dab in the heart of the New Romantic movement and has plenty to say about the highs and lows of being a well-coiffed pop star in the ’80s, including insight into the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and the band’s performance at Live Aid. It’s hard to say if you’d enjoy it as much as I did if you’re not already a Spandau Ballet fan, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. As a child of the ’80s, I thought it was pretty awesome—and quite hilarious at times, particularly the bit about the band arriving at the Band Aid session at the same time as Sting.
I have this tendency to hate something when someone else loves it too much. That sounds bad, so let me be more specific: I hate it when people are so in love with a piece of pop culture that they become single-issue evangelists incapable of understanding why someone else might not like it. It’s what’s stopped me from loving Wes Anderson, and what kept me from reading Kurt Vonnegut. Then last month, I found Slaughterhouse-Five on my dad’s old Kindle, put aside my kneejerk hatred of “so it goes” wrist tattoos, and dove into the book. I didn’t emerge until I finished it a day later. If I had a physical copy, it would be covered with notes and hearts in the margins from front to back. I obsessively highlighted fragments like “mustard gas and roses,” “held Irish whiskey like a doorbell,” and my favorite, “I have this disease late at night sometimes involving alcohol and the telephone.” The prose is at once deeply profound and gloriously weird. Finally reading Slaughterhouse-Five was one of my favorite reading experiences in quite some time, and a handy reminder that sometimes people love something because it deserves the love.