MILFs, Monarchs, Miller, Makers, Murder, & More | What We’re Reading & Watching

Beginning this merry merry month of May, LJ and School Library Journal staffers join various emeriti and share their thoughts about Arthur Miller plays, literary mystery debuts, Roxane Gay’s new memoir, art-making novels, L.M. Montgomery “fanfic,” iterations of Spartacus, Australian dramedies, and family stories.

Speaking of emeritus, our colleague Tyler Hixson is leaving the SLJ book room for the wilds of Brooklyn Public Library, Brower Park branch to be exact, where he’ll be Senior Librarian 1 in the YA department. Kudos to Tyler and to Brower Park, whose gain is (sniff!) our loss. He’s promised to keep in touch with the WWR/WWW team, though. That’s some consolation.

Ellen Abrams, WWR/WWW emerita
I recently read Arthur Miller’s 1969 play, The Price. And while I haven’t seen the current Broadway production, running through May 14, I did see a 2000 performance starring Jeffrey DeMunn, Harris Yulin, Bob Dishy, and Lizbeth MacKay. It was a very good show with excellent New York actors, although not as high profile as the new star-studded cast.

The Price is a late-ish play by Miller about a two grown brothers: Victor is a beat cop; Walter, a successful doctor. The building in which they grew up is about to be torn down, and they have to get rid of the family possessions that have accumulated for decades. Only the brothers haven’t spoken in 28 years. Victor sacrificed a college education to support their father, who lost his money in the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Victor calls in Solomon, a furniture appraiser, to purchase the family’s wares, but when Walter appears (after avoiding Victor’s phone calls), out comes the big reveal—which will not be exposed here, but it’s a good one.  Not necessarily absolutely believable, but it’s still Miller, and even when he’s not in tip-top form, he writes a compelling play that explores the dangers of mindless capitalism, the fatal injuries families inflict on one another, and the dreams forgotten that once meant everything.  The Price is definitely worth a first or second look.

Mahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
Last weekend, my reading and viewing materials took me to the college campus! First, I read Tom Perrotta’s latest, Mrs. Fletcher (S.& S.), about an empty-nester divorcée after her grunting frat boy of a fledgling has flown the coop. The book follows both the title character, Eve, and her son, Brendan, away at school. The night that Eve’s son leaves, she receives a lurid, middle-of-the-night text message from a stranger, who affectionately dubs her his MILF; the bizarre event prompts her to grapple with her sexual identity. She falls down a rabbit hole of MILF-related pornography, enrolls in a college course on gender, and starts flirting with a young woman who works for her. Meanwhile, freshman Brendan assumes that college will be nonstop sex and drugs, but encounters with thoughtful and more progressive students leave him bewildered. I love Perrotta’s ability to blend an absorbing narrative with incisive social observations, with hilarious results. This one isn’t quite as vivid as Little Children, but it’s absolutely enjoyable and spot-on.

I also binge-watched the entire first season of Netflix’s Dear White People, a TV series that’s a sequel of sorts to the 2014 film of the same name. The movie centered on the experiences of four black students at a predominantly white, Harvard-esque institution, exposing the microaggressions—and out-and-out racism—faced by people of color that often go unseen by those who are white. The series follows the same characters (mostly played by different actors) as they deal with the aftermath of a party where white students dressed in blackface, romantic and friendship woes, and institutional racism. While the show lacks the searing anger of the film, it’s far more focused. The characters are hilariously self-aware, exchanging dialog that would make Aaron Sorkin jealous, and achingly relatable, even when they are at their most infuriating. And the cherry on top? Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Giancarlo Esposito introduces each episode!

Shelley Diaz, Reviews Manager, SLJ
On my travels to the Texas Librarian Association Conference, I finished Melanie J. Fishbane’s historical fiction YA Maud (Penguin Teen), based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s teen years. Anyone who knows me knows about my obsession with Anne of Green Gables and will understand why I had to read the book and interview the author. Check out our chat about Maud and the new Netflix adaptation Anne.

Since I finished that book and had vowed to travel lightly, I was stuck without something to read on my second leg of the trip (gasp!). So I picked up my first nonwork-related adult book in years, Philippa Gregory’s Three Sisters, Three Queens (Touchstone). I devoured Gregory’s books in high school and college, so this made a perfect airplane read. I finished the 600-page volume on my way home. It tells the story of three Tudor women—the ill-fated Queen Katherine, Queen Mary (younger sister of King Henry VIII) who became queen of France, and Queen Margaret (Henry’s older sister), the grandmother of the future Queen of Scots. The book is told from Queen Margaret’s point of view, and it’s fascinating. While not at all a likable heroine, she forges ahead of her time, trying to unite England and Scotland, marrying three times, and protecting her son’s right to the throne. She actually divorced her second husband before Anne Boleyn showed up and was severely ostracized by her brother Henry, even though a few years later, he’d do the same. Figures.

I’m now watching The White Queen and Reign to get my fill of British royal drama. And hey, there’s an Anne Shirley connection, too! Mary Queen of Scots’s mother-in-law is played by Megan Follows, who immortalized Anne in the Kevin Sullivan TV miniseries Anne of Green Gables.

Bette-Lee Fox, Managing Editor, LJ
Hannah Gersen’s 2016 debut novel, Home Field (Morrow), is about families, plain and simple. It’s 1996, and the wife of Maryland high school football coach Dean Renner has just committed suicide by hanging herself inside the barn on Dean’s father’s Pennsylvania farm. That leaves Dean to raise his two young sons, Robbie and Bryan, and his stepdaughter, Stephanie, who is surly enough with college looming at the end of the summer. Dean is an excellent coach; it’s his parenting approach that needs work. But with no alternative, he’s got to step it up and get in the game. A can’t-put-it-down novel, for sure, though I had to do just that twice when deadline-related reading intervened. Third time was the charm.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I’ve been wearing the reviewer’s hat lately, working on fashion books for both LJ and SLJ, a graphic memoir about a bad dog, a collection of biblio mysteries, and Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow (S. & S.), out in August. Kukafka’s debut is getting some buzz; she’s an assistant editor at Penguin’s Riverhead Books, and it’s a head-hopper of a title, with three different townspeople processing the death of a local golden girl. Two of the three protagonists are the girl’s high school classmates; the third is a policeman investigating the case.
The classmates, a boy named Cameron and a girl named Jade, are talking about Cameron’s dad, who left town under a cloud, accused but not tried or convicted of a violent crime. Jade rails against the local cops and says his dad got off even though he “nearly killed that girl.”

“Please,” Cameron said.
“Do you think he did it?” Jade asked.
“Yeah,” Cameron told her.
“It’s okay, you know,” Jade said. “I mean, it’s okay to love someone who does something bad. Just because you do something bad doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. Look at it this way: wouldn’t you rather be a good person who does one awful thing than a bad person who does one good thing?”

Tyler Hixson, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
I am currently binge-watching Starz’s Spartacus on Netflix. I love the story of the Thracian gladiator who led a slave revolt against the Roman Empire, and this series is just fun to watch. It’s gory and…adult-themed…but underneath all of that are really incredible story lines. There’s obviously Spartacus (Andy Whitfield/Liam McIntyre; Whitfield passed away from cancer between Seasons 1 and 2), a Thracian tribesman who leads his village to war siding with the Romans, only to be arrested for desertion and sold into gladiatorship to the house of Batiatus.

There’s also Quintus Lintinius Batiatus (John Hannah), the head of the ludus (gladiator school), who is constantly trying to get out from under his father’s shadow by seeking a position within the Roman Senate; his wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), despairs at not being able to have children and is sleeping with Crixus (Manu Bennett), the champion of Capua, the best gladiator at the house of Batiatus. Crixus has his own troubles when he falls in love with Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), one of Lucretia’s most prized slaves. As you can see, there’s a lot more going on besides the over-the-top gore and licentiousness. Think the poor man’s Game of Thrones.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I love novels about making art—not only the thought process but the physical act as well. Reading Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev at age 12 flipped that switch for me, and I always enjoy an author who takes on the creative act (reading about writers doesn’t do the same thing for me). Also, and I’m not proud of this, I love novels about drugs—not the moral-arc, Behind the Music narratives of hitting bottom and then redemption, though it’s okay if that happens. But those descriptions, when they ring true, of what it’s like to step outside of yourself. I’m like the happily partnered person who still likes to read the occasional steamy romance: it’s entertaining to read reports from a road I didn’t take.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I liked Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators (Random) very much. Good solid writing, some inspired dialog, and an interesting arc to the story of two women who found success making autobiographical indie animated films while wrestling with their own demons and vaguely Southern gothic, weird upbringings. I may not be a professional artist or a dedicated stoner, but I really lit up at the exploration of what it means when a woman puts her work first, how that reverberates through her life and relationships. Whitaker did a bang-up job on the friendship between the two women as well. I’m not sure I bought the family dynamics all the time, but overall, it was a lot of fun.

Henrietta Verma, WWR/WWW emerita
I just read and reviewed Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper). This is one of those books that stay with you long after you’ve finished. I won’t get into too much, as the review isn’t out yet, but I highly recommend this series of essays. They describe Gay’s issues with her body—hers happen to concern weight, but we’ve all got a bone to pick with the vessel we inhabit, so the book deserves a wide audience. (Note that it will be tough going for sexual abuse survivors.)

I’m also a watcher lately. After the Australian comedy/drama Offspring, which I loved, I was in the mood for something similar. I’m now watching ABC’s Chasing Life, a less funny drama that’s a remake of an earlier Mexican show, with this version set in Boston. It follows April, a twentysomething journalist who has cancer, and her relationships with family, friends, and love interests. It’s not Offspring, but it’s good.

 

 

 

 

 

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Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench

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