Summer reading for 2016 (so far…)

Because I’m not in school right now, I’ve been able to pick up on my reading. I burned through quite a few books this summer so far. My goal was to read more fiction – something I find hard to do since I graduated from college back in 2010. Aside from my yearly reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I tend toward creative nonfiction, specifically travel books or food writing.

I took a class in a-realism literature and we read some challenging literature, including László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó and Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness, both books that kinda knocked me on my ass when we read them as a class. So I re-read them on my own, with more time – they’re fantastic books, and am glad that the professor – Kyle Beachy, a fantastic author in his own right – assigned them.

Anyways, my summer so far has been a crazy mix of YA (which I don’t normally read), fantasy (Again, I don’t read), plus some great stuff by feminist authors (which I do read, a lot of…).

  1. Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
  2. I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro
  3. Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
  4. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters
  5. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  6. Role Models by John Waters
  7.  Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie
  8. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons
  9. The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
  10. I Know What I’m Doing – and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction by Jen Kirkman
  11. Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai
  12. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  13. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  14. Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  15. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  16. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
  17. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler
  18. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  19. Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
  20. A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk’s Greatest Hits by Kris Kirk

I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the books I read throughout the second half of May and all of June. Overall, I was pretty happy with the books I’ve read – nary a dud in any of them. The most surprising thing is that I enjoyed Riggs’ books so much. It’s a fantastic trilogy about a young boy named Jacob who travels through time with band of kids. There are time loops and the author references historical events, namely WWII and parts of the novels’ action takes place during the Blitz. The Riggs Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children novels are YA, but they’re quite violent and disturbing – especially with the allusions to the Holocaust. Like X-Men, Riggs uses the concept of children with special powers to highlight discrimination and bigotry. In that respect, he’s not doing something new, but having the kids try to navigate throughout different time periods, all the while battling larger, more evil forces made for some gripping reading. My favorite were the first two, the third one being just slightly less interesting – it felt episodic and padded. Tim Burton is making a film from the first novel, and already I see that his screenwriter Jane Goldman has played with some of the plot points, which have elicited angry comments in the comments section of the trailer’s YouTube page. While I’m wary of these changes, too, I’m hoping Burton – who has a great track record – won’t make hash of this book.

I also was on a mini-John Waters break. I’m a fan of his movie work, and now he’s pretty much retired  from movie making, so he’s writing books and traveling the country on his one-man tour. I enjoyed his books – they’re similar in style and humor to his films, though alternative. Role Models is a great look at different people that Waters has run into in his life – people like Little Richard, Cy Twombly, Tennessee Williams, and Leslie Van Houten, are among the people he profiled in the book. Leslie Van Houten is especially sad – Waters recognizes that his fascination with Charles Manson can be seen as morbid and macabre, and he paints a sympathetic, but not white-washed, image of Leslie Van Houten. The Little Richard interview was fascinating because of the rock legend’s rigid need for control over his image. Carsick was interesting in that Waters split the book up into thirds: one part of the book was a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip that goes well, the second part is a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip from hell, and the third is a factual account of Waters’ hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco. I thought the book’s structure was a neat gimmick, and the first two parts of the book were pretty funny – especially the disastrous trip. The authentic story in the book was also good, but felt a bit like a let down because the trip wasn’t all that memorable. I did like how respectful he was of the kind locals who picked him up – creative types can be a bit dismissive, if not downright condescending, so it was a relief that he imparted a dignity to everyone he passed by. Crackpot is an earlier piece (I read it almost in one sitting, during a long subway ride out of the city to visit my dad and stepmom), which is a collection of essays on a wide range of topics – celebrities, cities, films, etc. My favorite essay is a crazy interview he conducted with Pia Zadora – I love Pia Zadora for the same reasons everyone else does, she’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that there is such a thing as Pia Zadora – and though Waters definitely sees the camp value in his subject, he’s not mean and ends the peace on a high note (Zadora’s reinvention from b-movie star and c-list pop star to respected torch singer). I was always a big fan of John Waters’ work, and was sad to learn that he slowly faded from film making. One thing that was interesting was John Waters’ fascination with Christmas: he has a Christmas record and one of the last film he was hoping to put together was a twisted tale of Christmas. I know this because when I bought Crackpot from After-Words New and Used Books (a fantastic bookstore), the kind seller behind the counter shared with me the tidbit about the aborted John Waters Christmas movie.

Earlier in the summer, I blogged about going to see Lindy West and Rebecca Traister at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. I was prepared for the event and I read both West and Traister – I enjoyed West’s book a lot. I love humor essay collections, and I love funny ladies (nothing greater in the world than a funny dame). West, a comedienne who is married to a stand-up comic, became known for her funny, heartfelt, and emotional response to popular culture, specifically how it shapes women and feminists. The book is very funny, but also quite heartbreaking at times, none more so than when she talked about the stress of battling against the comedy world over the permissive use of rape jokes. She writes about how comedy essentially broke her heart. I love Lindy West’s sharp sense of humor and I laughed out loud many times reading Shrill, so I hope that one day she and comedy can have a healthy reconciliation. Traister is a journalist I’ve been following for a bit now – she wrote a fantastic essay on Hillary Clinton (and I’m currently reading her book on the 2008 elections). All the Single Ladies is more “journo-speak” than Shrill, though it’s still funny and personal at times. It charts the history of married women in the United States and charted the growing number of single women – and what that meant for gender parity.

There were two other feminist books I read this summer: Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, which is a great takedown of corporate feminism and the commodification of feminism; and Susan Faludi’s engrossing In the Darkroom which chronicled her late-in-life relationship with her estranged father who came out as trans. Zeisler is the editor of Bitch magazine, one of the best sources of media criticism ever (I say this even after I was rejected for writing fellowship). Zeisler takes on this trademark feminism that has sprung up in advertising, television, pop music, and film, and examines how destructive and ultimately emptying a neo-liberal/capitalist takeover of feminism is. In Faludi’s book, we are treated to a difficult father-daughter relationship as she starts to rebuild her tie with her father, who came out as trans at the end of her life. Faludi – whose book Backlash is still required reading according to me – treats her father with great respect, but the book is weighed with the pain she felt when she was younger, hurting because of her father’s abuse. When Faludi shifts away from her interactions with her dad and onto more journalistic writing, the book loses some of its power – I also find it difficult to read trans narratives – particularly criticism or theory on trans issues – when written by cis authors.

Along with Lindy West, I read some other comedic memoir/essay stuff. Jen Kirkman is one of my favorite comediennes of all time. She’s great at skewering popular cultures obsession with motherhood and shaming women into having children. Dave Holmes was an MTV VJ – one I had kind of a crush on – and he writes about his childhood and adolescence, as well as his career trajectory, framed by the titles of pop songs. Faith Salie is an NPR favorite of mine, and I devoured her book, too – I especially loved her writing about her close relationship with her gay brother. The strangest of the comedic memoirs was Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person. I almost don’t consider this a comedic memoir, but Notaro’s a comic, so…For anyone who hibernated underneath a rock, Notaro is this fantastic stand-up who had a year of complete hell: her mom died, she had a bacterial infection that landed her in the hospital, her relationship collapsed, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a pretty heavy book, but with some beautiful writing. It’s not light, easy reading, and those who marvel at the brilliance of Notaro’s voice on stage will be floored at her candor and her insight, especially when she writes – with devastating humor – about the reactions of those around her, who want to claim she’s brave and a hero (though she is a comedy hero of mine).

I picked up Flight 232 for a number of reasons. One, I remember hearing a rapturous review, I think on NPR. And two, it’s the inspiration, in part, of one of my favorite films, Peter Wier’s 1993 film Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Rossellini, and Rosie Perez. United Airlines Flight 232 was an airplane that crashed in July of 1989 – it was a catastrophic crash landing that killed 111 people. The miraculous thing about the incident was that 185 people survived the crash, mainly due to the work of the pilots, flight attendants, and heroic passengers who helped each other. It’s a heavy book to read and obviously not a fun one – but Gonzales has done some exhaustive research and was able to piece together a compelling work that often read like a novel. And he maintained a dignified restraint, eschewing dramatic or gory language that would feel exploitative, given the subject matter.

When I found Dave Holmes’ book, I initially though it would be essays about music. Kris Kirk’s  A Boy Called Mary is a collection of essays about pop music and its intersection with UK queer culture in the 1980s. So much of queer culture in the 1980s was wrapped up in pop music, which was at its gayest. He interviews various pop stars, including Dusty Springfield, Erasure, Bronski Beat, and Boy George, and he writes about AIDS, drugs, gay rights, drag. It’s a fantastic book – one of my favorite. Kirk later would die from AIDS and he became a folk hero of sorts because he was one of the first people in the UK to come out as being HIV+.

Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea was a great read. Funny, harrowing, and sobering. I picked it up after reading about Otto Warmbier, the college student who got 15 years of hard labor, after being arrested in North Korea for trying to steal a poster from the hotel in which he was staying. Warmbier’s plight broke my heart, but I ‘m ashamed to admit, I wondered “what kind of person wants to visit North Korea?” Which is super racist and super xenophobic on my part, because all I know of North Korea is from Western media that portrayed the country as some kind of far-away monster. Simmons’ book is useful because it shines a spotlight on a country that everyone seems to have an opinion on, but hardly anyone has actually visited it. Her stories of her trip are interesting in that she writes about traveling in a country that is highly restrictive and under a government that is highly controlling. There’s just the right amount of gallows humor to make the book as fun a read as possible (we are talking about North Korea, after all).

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Filed under Biography, Book, Book in a Month, commentary, Writing

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