Met & Unmet Expectations | What We’re Reading & Watching

Turkey Day looms and we can finally freely discuss the nominees and winners of LJ’s best books 2017. Here, the WWR/WWW crew recognizes its home state’s shortcomings, stacks a horror film against the novel, gets on the Bruuuuuce! bandwagon, reads and writes about writing, and follows a Vietnamese family to the United States. We’re thankful for the freedom to write about what we read and watch and the ability to disagree amongst ourselves—I’m giving much side eye to WWW alum Tyler Hixson’s denigration of my beloved Ruth Gordon—yet still being friendly. It’s good practice for when we sit down with friends and family on Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
When I was reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper), an LJ Top Ten best book , I wondered how Gay was faring in Indiana, where she’s a writing professor at Purdue University. I learned the answer pretty quickly, and cringed for myself, a total “not all Hoosiers” apologizer, and for others in my home (red) state. From Hunger:

Four years later, I moved to central Indiana, a much bigger town, a small city really. In the first weeks, I was racially profiled in an electronics store. Living here never got better. When I lamented how uncomfortable I was and am here, local acquaintances often tried to tell me, in different ways, “Not all Hoosiers,” much in the same way men on social media would say, “Not all men,” to derail discussions about misogyny. There is loneliness. The confederacy is alive and well here though we are hundreds of miles from the Old South. There is a man who drives around in an imposing black pickup truck with white-supremacist flags frying from the rear. My dental hygienist tells me I live in a bad part of town. There are no bad parts of town here, not really. In the local newspaper, residents write angry letters about a new criminal element in town. “People from Chicago,” they say, which is code for black people. 

Tyler Hixson, WWR/WWW emeritus; librarian, Brooklyn P.L.
I just started two books: Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (S. & S.), and Bill James’s Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence (Scribner), a recommendation from my former colleague Mahnaz Dar. The first book is a comprehensive account of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, which, in my opinion, is a criminally undercelebrated part of American history. It reads less as an account of the voyage and more like a thrilling historical adventure novel; you forget you’re reading nonfiction. The book focuses a lot on the relationship between Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson, which I know almost nothing about. I’m only about 50 pages in, but I’m hooked so far.

Popular Crime focuses on our fascination with murder by looking at “celebrated crimes” (isn’t that an awful phrase?), from those of Lizzie Borden to O.J. Simpson. James dissects the evidence of each crime and talks about the media firestorm that accompanied them. It *clap* is *clap* enthralling.

In terms of watching, I just saw Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and for the first time, I will say that I ruined the movie by reading the book first. Ira Levin’s novel was awesome, and after reading reviews about how incredible the movie is, I was hyped. And I was let down. For those who don’t know the gist of the story, Rosemary and husband Guy move into the Bramford, where they meet their pretentious neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castavet. Guy takes to them immediately, but Rosemary is more wary. As Roman and Minnie wedge themselves further into their neighbors’ lives, Guy starts acting different and Rosemary comes to believe that the Castavets are witches and have indoctrinated Guy. Levin creates a tense, claustrophobic, and paranoid atmosphere that is nonstop throughout the book. Hearing that the film is a faithful adaptation, I expected the same.

However, actors Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes are obnoxious as Rosemary and Guy. Ruth Gordon is obnoxious as Minnie; I pictured a way more well-to-do older woman, not a crass, brash, crazy grandma. To Farrow’s credit, as the tension and paranoia builds, she becomes much more believable. But by that point, I had lost interest and resigned myself to understanding that the film wasn’t nearly as good as the novel.

Had I watched the film before I read the book, with no expectations, I might have liked it a little bit more. The story overall is terrifying and plays on human predisposition toward paranoia concerning loved ones with resounding success.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ
Last week, I gobbled up John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (Farrar), a collection of essays that appeared in The New Yorker (where McPhee has been a contributor for as long as I’ve been alive) over the past decade. You might imagine that, as someone who writes all day—and therefore thinks obsessively about writing most of the day—I might not want to spend my off hours thinking about writing more. But you’d be wrong. I really like reading books on the craft, especially if they’re crafty themselves, and this absolutely qualifies. I love McPhee’s writing, no matter how arcane his subjects—he manages to be both playful and precise, with the one dependent on the other. I love how he talks about it here, addressing both of those aspects and a few other things. I picked up a few tips along the way, which is always a welcome side effect of reading writers on writing—using a dictionary to help find appropriate words rather than a thesaurus, for instance, which is genius for reasons relating to substance and meaning over variety for variety’s sake. The book is a little gossipy, a lot practical, full of arch wordiness that, once you fall into its rhythm, is fun and packs a lot of punch. Full disclosure: when I was in the sixth grade, McPhee came and talked to the class about essay writing, which I’m pretty sure I hadn’t known was an actual thing until he said so, but I fell in love with the idea, as he presented it, right away. All these years later, I’m still in love with it, so I guess I can blame him for all this thinking about writing in the first place.

Etta Verma, WWW/WWR Alumna; Senior Editorial Communications Specialist, NISO, the National Information Standards Organization
I’m reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born To Run (S. & S.). Why did it never occur to me before that a songwriter would make a great book writer, and one with a fab, quirky style? I saw Bruce giving a hilarious speech at U2’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony a few years ago, and when I heard he had a memoir, I thought it would be funny. It is, but you come for the laughter and stay for the, pun intended, lyrical writing.

 

 

Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, School Library Journal
While sorting through my accumulated library for donation (simultaneously a bookworm’s worst nightmare and ultimate dream), I stumbled upon Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do (Comic Arts: Abrams), an LJ Best Graphic Novel of 2017, at the bottom of a stack. I cracked it open to start as a nighttime read and to continue on the next day’s commute; an hour later, I found myself up well past my bedtime determined to finish. It is the visually arresting and frequently uncomfortable account of Bui and her family’s difficult emigration from 1970s South Vietnam to the United States. One of four children, Bui, herself a new mother, reflects on her own childhood, her mother’s six pregnancies, and the tenderness that was or was not granted each of her parents in their respective upbringings. She details her mother’s travails across territories and amid violence, as the family attempts to flee to wherever is safest. There’s not a tidy ending for a book that explores the fracture of perpetual fear and intergenerational trauma so deeply; I know that Bui’s incredible work will remain with me for long, long while.

 

 

 

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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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