In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
The last time I checked in, I was preparing to move. Now I’m moving again, having never unpacked most of my books. They’ve been sitting in boxes for months. Everything stretching back to November feels like one blurred all-nighter of injuries and family emergencies. I’ve been busy, but not in the way anyone wants to be. And now the imminent move, which has its own long and mostly boring backstory.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to just sit down and read. Maybe months. So you have to imagine how it felt to finally stretch out on the couch a few evenings ago and open up Patrick Modiano’s 1950s-set puzzle-box In The Café Of Lost Youth, one of two newly translated novels by the French Nobel Prize winner due from New York Review Books next month. (I’ll be reviewing them here.) I’m a writer starved for books, and it’s been too damn long since a sentence has caught me in a loop, imploring me to re-read it over and over, as though I were getting deeper into it.
With In The Café Of Lost Youth, that sentence was: “Then we went our separate ways at the Porte Mailot, by the entrance to the Metro, and I watched her recede into the distance towards Neuilly and the Bois De Boulogne, walking more and more slowly, as if to give someone the opportunity to catch up with her.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of what I’ve come to value about Modiano in our short acquaintance: the casual but specific detail that abruptly dovetails into an insightful turn of phrase, almost as though the narrator (In The Café Of Lost Youth has four) didn’t realize what he was saying.
I’ve also been picking my way through Marc Augé’s Non-Places (inevitably dry subtitle: Introduction To An Anthropology Of Supermodernity), which I bought just before moving and therefore never packed. Augé is what you would call a “Ballardian” anthropologist, and Non-Places is, in large part, an attempt at establishing a conversation about anonymous and transitional spaces—airports, hotels, highways, chain stores—that aren’t usually thought of as socially or culturally significant but in which we spend a big chunk of our lives.
My reading this month has been anchored by the 1980s. On the comics front, I just finished the first volume of Paper Girls, which contains issues one through five, the entirety of the series so far. Set in Cleveland in the late ’80s, Paper Girls’ accompanying art by Cliff Chiang is what drew me in. Four of the five covers are a simple portrait of one of the four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls, drenched in neon hues reminiscent of Miami Vice or the Ellen Page Whip It poster. Colorist Matt Wilson continues to play with these shades throughout, while writer Brian K. Vaughan sets up a an out-of-this world story heavy on cliffhangers. It’s unclear what will happen to our heroes or their seemingly extraterrestrial invaders, but I expect some engrossing origin stories in the next arc.
Fortunately, an advance copy of Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism (out this May) is filling the void while I wait for more Paper Girls. Set in South Carolina in 1988, the press material touts it as Beaches meets The Exorcist, and the book has delivered on that promise so far. In keeping with a lot of ’80s pop culture, the main characters, Abby and Gretchen, are from opposite sides of the tracks. But that’s nothing that can’t be overcome by a shared love for things like E.T., pop music, dropping acid, and skinny-dipping. That last pastime, though, is where things go wonky, resulting not in a drug-fueled death but in Gretchen’s possession by the devil. Hendrix’s prose walks the fine line between comedy and horror throughout, delivering a simultaneously heartwarming and terrifying tale of teenage friendship, which is something most of us can relate to, exorcism or not.
Lastly, March’s issue of Esquire helped pull me out of the world of fiction (although a $950 wallet seems more unreal to me than a demonic possession) as I dove into Tom Chiarella’s “A Troubled Boy,” which rails against the idea that perpetrators of mass shootings are a result of negligent parents. The piece follows Shea, an 18-year-old boy who has violent outbursts on a daily basis, and his parents Shelly and Gary, who at one point resort to taping their son’s threats to shoot up a school or church as a means to turn him over to authorities. As the article explains, though, that courage goes unrewarded: “Parents cannot simply institutionalize their children. And no one will take them. Especially adult children like Shea.” Suffering from autism spectrum disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, Shea is highly verbal, socially awkward, empathy lacking, and prone to frequent tantrums. But he’s also someone’s son, and perhaps more importantly, he is a member of society that’s doomed to let him slip through the cracks, potentially at the cost of innocent peers.
This month began inauspiciously enough, as a book I had been assigned for a sci-fi/fantasy book club turned out to be a disappointment. Given all its positive notices, I had been anticipating great things from Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series—but perhaps the weight of expectations sunk The Blade Itself, the first book in that story. A fantasy epic that feels at times like a noir reworking of A Song Of Ice And Fire, it features a bunch of on-the-nose character types meant to undercut the traditional stereotypes of fantasy heroes, but which too often come across as clunky. The desire to insert moral ambiguity is conveyed by having the characters’ internal thoughts broadcast in broad, generic terms. The book telegraphs its plot points with the fervor of an old-time Western Union office. When it comes to fleshing out the narrative’s forward momentum, the story is goosed with excitement, but it bogs down so much in overwritten solipsism from every major character, the pace is glacial. I’ve read good things by Abercrombie before, and I’m sure I’ll read more in the future, but I couldn’t connect with The Blade Itself.
Much more successful genre fiction revealed itself this month in The Girl With All The Gifts, a smart and innovative take on the zombie apocalypse that places the reader’s sympathies on the side of a unique young girl. Melanie and her fellow students live in a facility that may define itself by daily classroom activities but which is undeniably a prison. As she slowly learns about the outside world, and the uncertain intent of those who watch over her, she comes to suspect that she’s more than just an ordinary little kid. M. R. Carey has taken the trope of the “creature who can feel” and made it resolutely ambiguous—instead of Frankenstein’s monster coming to consciousness, we get a young girl who is neither human nor zombie but rather a both/and creation, feeling out of place among members of either species. And the story moves at an exhilarating clip, as events unfold in the only way they can, given that this is a story about humanity keeping an army of hungry undead outside the barrier of their walled-in existence. Nonetheless, each element has a fresh coat of paint, with unexpected nuance and shading in Carey’s main cast of characters and narrative developments both smart and dreadful. Just as it does for Melanie, Carey’s world starts small for the reader and slowly, compellingly expands.
Also, is it worth mentioning that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me was indeed excellent? Even when the near-messianic fatalism of his philosophy of American race relations threatens to render his electrifying analysis moribund (the current horrific state of affairs is how it has been, is, and ever shall be, world without end, amen), the prose is so damned great that it stands as its own evidence against nihilism. Coates’ exhortations to critical thought are a bulwark against the always-encroaching bleakness of the horizon. Let this be yet another reminder that it’s a stirring and emotional read.