Book Time: March Titles

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest – Hanif Abdurraqib

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Hanif Abdurraqib is one of the best writers at work today. He’s a poet and essayist but no box can contain everything that comes out of his brain – and I can’t get enough. With this latest book, Abdurraqib writes about and to A Tribe Called Quest, combining a deep love and appreciation for the group with a far-reaching history of why people make and share music, an elegiac sensibility for cultural legacies that have come before and cannot always be carried forward, epistolary sections to the group’s members, and and personal ode to the mark it left on him and his world.

It’s one of my favorite openings to a book I’ve read in a while: “In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it.”

I got to see Abdurraqib speak and read recently, and I want to leave some of his sentiments here. The joy and love for his subject, while still holding it at arm’s length, was palpable and insanely fun to hear about firsthand.

“Sampling is speaking backwards.”
“I’m not speaking as an authority, but as a fan. I raise the personal stakes while keeping a distance.”
“Adam looked upon the apple and said ‘I have no choice but to stan.’”
“There are moments you can tell a rapper is fully in their bag.”
“I don’t care how much you know about music. If you have one song you love, I’m with you.”
“To love a musician is to already have mourned the world without them in it.”

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

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In the 1970s, teenage Silvie and her family are on a two-week trip of sorts reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons in northern England. Her father is obsessed with this period of life, turning out to be an abusive bigot (not a spoiler). He would like to think that if he goes back far enough, there will be no foreign influence to be found, and he can wallow in the sameness. At his behest, the group falls into gender-segregated tasks, with the women cooking foraged food and the men “hunting.” We learn more about Silvie’s everyday life, with her father looming over with painful control. The patriarchy is strong in this one – the men eventually build a “ghost wall” after something ancient Britons apparently did. Silvie’s father is also drawn to sacrificial practices, and is locked in a past of his own design. Moss explores the thread of violence connecting women in all spans of time. Walls may not be new, but they seem to speak to the dangerous sensibilities of assault and subjugation in any period.

Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay – Phoebe Robinson

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Phoebe Robinson is a true delight. Whether she’s writing about reality TV, the art Bono has made for her, or intersectional feminism, she is both exacting in her cultural criticism and unfiltered in comedic interludes. Robinson is squarely in the camp of more-is-more, but my mind is an underwater cave full of junk, so I’m right there with her with any tangent she wants to go on or any crazy connection she wants to make. I would like Robinson to please crank out at least a book a year so I know what she thinks about absolutely everything. All the trash. And whatever she’s got going on with Bono. Bono-nus: Ilana Glazer wrote the introduction.

Circe – Madeline Miller

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Miller tells the story of Circe – heretofore known to me as a plot strand in The Odyssey – through a more feminist lens. A daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe is more drawn to mortals than more celestial beings. She gradually discovers she’s a witch, Harriet, and patriarchal power (Zeus) goes crazy and banishes her to an island. Her island sounds pretty great – she hones her witchcraft, tames animals, and gets to live in a beautiful setting away from the gods’ antics. (In Miller’s telling, they are all petty jerks.) She does have to weather visitors, and that’s where most of the plotlines kick in.

This is a mythical page-turner. I couldn’t put this book down. Even though if I were Circe, I’d want to take over the island and just mess around with my witchery and ban any randos from interrupting, that wouldn’t make for much of a story. Though the story threads are familiar – the Minotaur, Odysseus, etc. – Miller keeps the pacing at a good clip and conjures up beefier characters than in the versions of these myths I knew. It reminded me of the books I loved as a kid, with a fantasy or historical element and a keep-you-up-all-night power – A Great and Terrible Beauty, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Mists of Avalon, etc.

The drawback, though, is that as Miller seems to aim for a lofty tone reminiscent of classic storytelling, she hits somewhere in the no man’s land (heh) between weird translation and bad romance novel. That style got a bit cloying, but I kept turning the pages anyway.

Red Card: How the US Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal – Ken Bensinger

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Bensiger outlines how various officials around the world used FIFA as a front to enrich themselves. I’m a casual soccer fan and was inspired to dig further after reading this article on how Manchester City is trying to take over the world., but I took a step wrong here. Why did I read this entire book? This should have stayed an article and not ballooned to 300-plus pages consisting mostly of glowing fanboy praise of various IRS and FBI men valiantly spreadsheeting through tax documents and following the money. Bensinger fixates on one IRS agent in California who loves tracking bad soccer people’s bank activity worldwide and turns him into a vaunted figure. Listen – corruption is bad, and work like this is important, but the mad focus on the men in the far-reaching investigation, and rare mention of any women involved (and there is only the most fleeting evidence of them as they author portrays it, though they were certainly key players, too) was glaring. The most I got out of this was that maybe it should be a different set of people who get book deals to investigate power structures. This was a perpetuation of patterns that lead to such abuses of power in the first place.

 

In-between times: Selected readings

What is time? Matthew McConaughey says it’s a flat circle. I say it’s a slippery devil I can’t get hold of. Which means I haven’t done monthly books on a, well, monthly basis lately. So here is a curated collection of what I’ve read in the in-between times.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib

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This is the first book I’ve read by Hanif Abdurraqib, but I’ve loved his essays on music and culture for a long time. Abdurraqib is everything – eager to engage in new and old content, wary of the world but full of love for some of its inhabitants, a quivering soul with some great stories about the punk scene in Ohio in the early 2000s. In this essay collection, he writes about everything from Prince’s unparalleled Super Bowl performance in 2007 to Carly Rae Jepsen. Nothing I can say will do his writing justice; it’s poetic and personal and wrapped up in empathy. I can’t wait to read his latest, the just-released “Go Ahead in the Rain,” about A Tribe Called Quest.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

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It was just a month ago, but feels like eons since I read this book. Like I was living a different life – I think that’s the effect of Moshfegh’s writing; she seizes your mind and pulls it into a different plane while you’re reading. (I know, isn’t that what all reading does? Reading Rainbow travels? Not like this. Not like Moshfegh does it.) Whatever world she’s created is jarringly different but has all the same scenery as modern life that you feel like a zombie in an alternate world.

An unnamed young woman in 2000 New York decides to narcotically enhance her life by sleeping as much as possible. She finds the worst psychiatrist imaginable and gets endless prescriptions to aid in this endeavor. During her fleeting waking moments, she is addicted to watching Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS and has to find ways to keep her drug cocktail calibrated for maximum unconsciousness.

I’ve heard this book described by multiple sources as “utterly depressing.” And maybe my mind chemistry is addled, but that wasn’t my first impression. Sad, yes, but Moshfegh is too good for this to just be a sinking stone. This was…funny. Darkly so, but it took the concept of alienation and pushed it into another universe. The protagonist doesn’t only want to escape from the world, but her own inner one, too. Moshfegh steers us through the narcoleptic fugue states and arrives at something almost hopeful.

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Book Time: November Titles

I broke a promise to myself this month – that I would read mainly works by women authors. All dudes this time around. And I didn’t mean for it to happen this way, but one of the books involves actual sausage. I shan’t bow to patriarchal pressure to apologize. (You’re not the kielbasa of me.) Brace yourself for some meatiness.

The Winter Soldier – Daniel Mason

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This is such a beautiful, devastating book. Lucius is a young Polish medical student in 1914 Vienna, and thinks signing up for military service will get him the actual experience he craves. He ends up stationed at a field hospital (a former church) deep on the Polish eastern front, with a mysterious nun named Margarete as his guide in surgical and all other matters. With Margarete heavily in the lead, the duo go on to treat the gruesome, innumerable wounds of the war raging all around them. When a soldier wanders into the town with intensive internal trauma, Lucius gets an even greater shock than the physical brutality he’s witnessed so far.

Lucius has long been fascinated by neurological cases, and believes he can probe the mind as much as he’s learned about physical ailments. “There was a beautiful clarity in the patterns, the possibility of locating a tumor simply by whether it destroyed language or vision. The opportunity to reduce the complexity of other people to architecture of their cells.” Lucius, in the brutality of war and the incapacity of medicine, learns that unseen pain from combat trauma far eclipses his enthusiasm to find such equations. I don’t think he ever truly recovers from that realization.

Mason is a masterful writer, and also happens to be a physician, so he imbues everything with incredible medical detail along with emotion. Lucius is such a real, complicated man full of feelings and angst. (He is also full of sausage, as at one point he keeps some links in his pocket for days of rounds.) Mason’s deep research brings us a brilliantly realized World War I-era Vienna, and an intriguing reckoning of the early work with patients who would later be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Margarete is as full a character as Lucius, who falls in love with her but can’t quite spin out her whole story. That Mason can pull this off is how stunning a writer he is. He doesn’t fall into the “women are such a mystery, oh well” trap; he sketches out just enough to make her utterly unforgettable and a resilient survivor.

Come for the sausage, stay for the Margarete.

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Book Time: October Titles

There There – Tommy Orange

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When Tommy Orange writes, speaks, or generally puts anything out into the universe, you should pay attention. Just the first dozen pages of “There There” are enough to jolt you to rapt observance – in that space alone, he lasers through centuries of wrongs against Native American people, across continents. Orange zeroes in on the contemporary urban space: “…nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

At the very least, here is a voice big enough for the Grand Canyon, booming and bitingly philosophical, yet precise enough to convey the particularities of people with both named and unnamed trauma.

In his debut novel, Orange follows a range of Native Americans through Oakland, California, as they converge on a powwow at the city’s Coliseum. He has created people who want to forget, discover, hide, be seen, who grieve but find ways to make it through the world, who have been ascribed a restricted identity by a country that still doesn’t let them create one for themselves.

Orange gives life to a wide array of characters struggling with these identities. At one point, one of them flies a drone into the open top of the Coliseum to take in the scene – Orange is a drone himself, a flyer who has only just begun to show what he can do.

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Book Time: September Titles

Lightning round!

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

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Phoebe lost her mother, Will lost his faith. When they meet at college, these losses congeal into extremes. Kwon writes devastatingly well about manifested pain.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

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Rooney is my pick for the best chronicler of modern life. Nothing and everything happen in the truest, barest portrait of relationship I’ve read.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou

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This is a story that shakes your neck off your spine: a woman in Silicon Valley has an idea for better blood testing, but takes it to a dangerous level of deception, raising millions of dollars in funding while lying about the technology’s progress (or lack thereof), deceiving her board (which consisted of people like General James Mattis and Henry Kissinger), and terrorizing her employees. While she did a bad bad thing, there is also something thrilling/chilling about what Elizabeth Holmes was doing in the male-saturated tech world. 

The Ensemble – Aja Gabel

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Gabel explores how family and closeness play themselves out in a classical quartet – in each of the members’ individual lives, and the life of the group itself. I had high hopes for this book, but it wasn’t as satisfying a bouquet as the cover depicts. Still, it was worth it for the musical references alone.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

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Read everything Atkinson gives you. “Transcription” probes the mundanities of war that mix with the overall drama, buoyed by a dry sense of humor.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

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In a long-term relationship with a man obsessed with former cult musician Tucker Crowe to the exclusion of almost everything else, Annie wonders if life has anything more to offer. I saw a movie poster for this before I read the book and couldn’t help but picture Ethan Hawke in the role of Tucker. I think it improved the experience.

Book Time: August Titles

Didn’t quite reach my quota this month, but did spend some quality time with these pages.

Night School – Lee Child

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Let me tell you something about Jack Reacher. I am in deep, unapologetic love with this man. I will follow him wherever he goes, from tiny towns in American nowhere to more far-flung destinations, nod along as he breaks down every move in his fights against bad men. (Hand-to-hand combat comes up a lot.) Jack can devine the motives and next moves of any criminal just by which door he uses to exit the building. Everything is black and white and gray is a color reserved for mood-setting weather. He always eats in diners because of the sturdy coffee mugs and favorable calorie-to-cost ratio, and the fact that he usually uses them to either receive or stage missions, or take out a few criminals.

Jack is a 6’5”, 250-pound itinerant ex-military cop, moving through the world with one spartan outfit, a travel-size toothbrush, and a mean right hook. He’s basically a Viking: “I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy.” Did I mention Jack is the main character in an eponymous series by Lee Child? Well, I’m addicted.

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Book Time: July Titles

In which I somehow read three memoirs and the last installment of a favorite trilogy.

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The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr

Born in East Texas in the mid-1950s, Mary Marlene Karr grew up surrounded by deadly forces and beings – hurricanes, blazing heat, the oil industry, poisonous snakes, spiders, giant rats, alligators, stinging jellyfish, undertow. Her childhood was an extended calamity. But other people were perhaps the most dangerous creatures.

Memories were deadly, too, as they both evaded and invited inspection into past tragedy. Karr wastes no time getting to the butcher knife- and sheriff-rousing-type episodes of her youth, and circles this element of recollection. Some points in her life are almost too painful to be fully known, yet call out for it: “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head, then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.” A central weight in Karr’s writing is cultivating fading but extant memories and telling stories about them.

Continue reading “Book Time: July Titles”