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?
As always, I am reading more than one at a time. (I never used to do that, now I just have a stack of half-read books next to the bed at all times.) It’s easy to jump in and out of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, by former A.V. Clubber Steven Hyden. Each chapter details a different pop-music rivalry, though it’s as much a history of those things as it is a history of Hyden’s feelings about those things. That’s a compliment; he’s great with turns of phrase, and incredibly passionate about both music and his passion for music. (Just don’t get him started on the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.)
If a brief history of Xtina vs. Britney or, even better, Neil Young vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t spark your interest, then you must hate music. Or gossip. Or both! The book doesn’t come out until May 17, which at my pace is about when I’ll finish it.
I’ve also been in and out of The Brothers Vonnegut: Science And Fiction In The House Of Magic, which came out last November. Its chapters bounce back and forth between biographies of Kurt Vonnegut and his brother Bernard, a scientist who studied “cloud seeding”—basically chemical ways to create rain. Both Vonneguts worked at General Electric in the late 1940s, with Bernard a superstar scientist and Kurt struggling to get his first short stories published while working as a PR flak. But it’s not just the tale of disparate careers: Bernard (and other scientists) inspired Kurt’s characters immensely.
Each Vonnegut ends up finding success in very different fields, and the book extrapolates (maybe a bit too much) about Kurt’s thoughts on the ethical responsibilities of science. But it’s a fascinating history of both men, and shines a bit of new light on Kurt’s life in the ’40s as a struggling writer, something that’s been covered to exhaustion elsewhere.
Thanks to the plethora of short reads on the internet—and being in the business of supplying such items—I seem to have a diminished ability to make my way through tomes. (I won’t call it an occupational hazard, because if this feature is any indication, no one else on staff is encountering the same trouble. And anyway, I’ve had this problem for a while.) I’m still splitting my attention, though I’ve currently narrowed it down to two books: a memoir and an oral history of black theater in Chicago.
In an effort to keep myself honest and well read, I joined an online book club that a wonderful feminist friend of mine started last year. March’s selection is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography Of A Face, which she published in 1994. The story begins with a prepubescent Grealy, who’s initially delighted by the rarity and resulting attention of her cancer diagnosis. She takes perverse pleasure in comparing herself to fictional heroines with mysterious ailments even as she casts herself in the new role of family linchpin.
For Grealy was already living an uncertain life: Her father struggled to support a family of seven, a fact that her mother despised even as she struggled with depression, and her older brothers remained resentful of settling in New York. Despite not entirely understanding her illness—she notes she never used the word “malignancy” or “cancer” s a child—Grealy was determined to become the focal point for her family’s woes.
With these self-imposed responsibilities, she essentially gave herself a new identity, an action that might have comforted her after her face became unrecognizable even to herself. But the same keen mind that wondered as a child about the symbiotic relationship between words and meaning was later utilized at Sarah Lawrence College, where she nurtured a love of poetry.
Grealy relates the entire “character-building” ordeal with effortless eloquence, with prose that’s almost lyrical, which has made for an engrossing read. But I’ve also started making my way through Harvey Young and Queen Meccasia Zabriskie’s Black Theater Is Black Life: An Oral History Of Chicago Theater And Dance, 1970-2010. My interest was piqued after a recent trip to the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Young, an associate professor of theater at Northwestern University, and Zabriskie, an assistant professor of sociology, have compiled interviews with black artists and activists to highlight an era of Chicago theater they feel has largely been ignored. They spoke with many black theater luminaries, including Goodman Theatre director Chuck Smith, Black Ensemble Theater founder Jackie Taylor, and award-winning dancer-choreographer Darlene Blackburn to form a historical account of the contemporary art scene. There’s a helpful glossary and appendix of leading performing arts institutions in Chicago.
Currently my kids and I are addicted to Magnus Chase And The Gods Of Asgard, Book One: The Sword Of Summer, the latest entry in Rick Riordan’s world-domination of YA literature. We never got super-into the Percy Jackson books, but Magnus has us hooked. He’s a teenaged Kurt Cobain-lookalike who’s a scion of Valhalla, kicking off the Nordic chapter of Riordan’s mythology empire. We’ve seen enough Avengers-related movies to be somewhat familiar with the fascinating world of Thor and Loki and their pals. And Magnus’ humorously snide asides (just like a typical grungy teenager) while he hangs with dwarves and elves, flirts with Valkyries, and deflects giants (in Boston, yet) have us all wanting to just squeeze one more chapter in before bedtime.
Continuing my adolescent theme—and maybe I’m just getting geared up for the summer’s crop of superhero movies—I’ve gone back into helpfully anthologized versions of classic DC and Marvel showdowns. In advance of Captain America: Civil War (and inspired by Tim O’Neil’s recent exploration of the X-Men canon), I picked up Avengers Vs. X-Men, in which the two teams face down over the search for mutants worldwide, and Cyclops is a bit of a jerk. Then in anticipatory excitement over finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen in Batman V Superman, I went back to my favorite series as a kid, Wonder Woman’s The Twelve Labors. In the ’70s, around original Wonder Woman title issue #200, our heroine got amnesia and became a white-pantsuited judo-chop lady. To get back into the Justice League when her memory returned, she had to do her own version of Hercules’ journey, with each adventure narrated by a different JL member (like the Atom, or Black Canary). Both these series hold up extremely well, which makes it clear why these titles and costumed characters have lasted for so long.
I swear, I used to read adult books.