Thursday, April 19, 2012

What We're Reading, Vol. 1: Michel Houellebecq, Lorrie Moore, Carrie Fisher and More

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 5:36 AM

Laura Hutson:
IT, Stephen King
You know when you first got Spotify and you spent an inordinate amount of time listening to stuff you’d never ever think of buying on vinyl, like Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and the theme song from Cheers? That’s sort of what happened to me when I got a Kindle. Old favorites like Italo Calvino and Joan Didion went pfft out the window, and I’ve been spending all my time with honest-to-God stories, like the literary version of watching a Law and Order marathon. But Stephen King is that rare writer who appeals to the popular imagination but is still incredibly, incredibly talented. I feel like this is the kind of book that is part of contemporary consciousness, and a plot summary is probably pointless. But for those who don't know: It's about seven kids who are terrorized by a scary clown who can rip a kid's arms off and chomp down on razor-blade teeth that cut into its gums. That's the short version. It will give you nightmares.

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out almost five years ago. It’s a lot shorter than I thought it was going to be, so it only took me a couple of days to read, and I was sad when it was over. Fisher is pretty fucked up — she put herself through electroshock therapy and her memory’s kind of shot. But she’s hilarious and self-effacing and as irreverent as you'd expect from someone who has been in the spotlight since in utero times. I wanted more from the book, but that's only because Fisher is such an engaging storyteller.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clark
I was obsessed with this book when it came out, and I’m rereading it because I misplaced my original copy and found a Kindle version for cheap. If you like Jane Austen AND Neil Gaiman, you’ve probably already read this book, but maybe it’s time for a re-read.

Jim Ridley:
The Map and the Territory, by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd
"The map is more interesting than the territory," reads the statement at a photography exhibit that erases any distinction between art and commerce: the latest book by the French provocateur opens with an artist struggling over a portrait of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, then scrapes away at the sense-fogging mediation that's the affliction of the age. That includes the author's own — among his characters is a reformed, worrisome novelist named Michel Houellebecq, viewed at arm's length with amused scrutiny until he's all too literally disassembled. A sort of mock lives-of-great-artists biography, teeming with deftly, sometimes cattily repurposed real-life figures both past and present, the book is often funny and coolly epigrammatic, with scabrous asides tossed off like casually lit cherry bombs. (Regarding JFK: "[You] had to agree that, on the whole, American Democratic presidents resembled Botoxed leches.") In the end, though, I'm less moved by the novel's regretfully reunited lovers and fading parents and growing chill of mortality than by the author's longing to be moved by them himself. Houellebecq's voice is at once detached and hyperaware: a space alien walking amongst us, reading us with supermarket-scanner eyes that hone in on our cigarette brands and camera models, yet regard with faintly envious incomprehension our tears and desires.

Dana Kopp Franklin:
The Coroner’s Lunch, Colin Cotterill
It’s cozy-whodunit-meets-the-Killing Fields in this superior mystery by Colin Cotterill, the first in a series starring Dr. Siri Paiboun. (The eighth, Slash and Burn, came out last year.) The Coroner’s Lunch is set in Laos in 1976, and the Communists have just taken over the regime. Appointed top coroner against his will, the elderly and adorable Paiboun uncovers dire conspiracies in a series of seemingly random deaths. This is a captivating mystery that takes you serious places, like among Hmong villagers as greedy military types plunder their ancient forests.

Elizabeth Jones:
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
Despite A Gate at the Stairs' hideous cover typography, author Lorrie Moore painted a picture I am familiar with: the growing pains of moving away from your family, taking a job with strangers you don't necessarily agree with, and struggling to forge your own path and discover your own beliefs in a racially charged environment (hello, living in the South!). The book follows nanny Tassie as she assimilates into a family — full of secrets and loaded looks — and follows her through college classes, visits home, and changing family (both adopted and biological) dynamics. Sweet, funny and poetically sad, the book is a great read for those of us who want to explore someone else's life for a while.

Steve Haruch:
A Walk in Victoria's Secret, Kate Daniels
It's National Poetry Month, and you know what that means: People who already care about poetry are trying to get the 99 percent, as it were, to feel the same way. Kate Daniels is a poet I admire. She teaches at Vanderbilt, where she was once poet-in-residence at the medical center — a fact that makes more sense the more of her stuff you read. In any case, I just started Daniels' latest, A Walk in Victoria's Secret, which I picked up at Parnassus the other day — where I have to say I was sort of bummed to see the poetry section was only one shelf, until I realized it wasn't even the entire shelf. (Fine, it's a bookstore owned by a novelist.) In any case, I'm only a few poems in, so I can't say too much about it yet, though I'm glad the very first poem is the one that explains and expands on the title. It's a long, complicated, uncomfortable, funny and evocative poem about breasts. It begins with an epitaph from Freud. Daniels is not a shy writer — she reminds me of a more serious and more disciplined Sharon Olds — and in the first 10 pages, you're presented with sex, death, race and, yes, bras. Like I said, I've just started this one, but if you want a sense of Daniels' powers, go read her poem "In the Marvelous Dimension." It's from an earlier book, but it just demolished me when I read it. I can't wait to get further into this new one.

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