Degenerates, Royals, Monsters, and the Zerelli Sisters | What We’re Reading & Watching

It’s been a busy post-Thanksgiving, post–Best Books season here at WWR/WWW land. After a bit of relaxation, the Reviews editors took to their writing desks and compiled LJ‘s Notable Books of 2017 list. We also compared our Best Books list with those of other publications and noted the commonalities and the differences. The Guardian’s approach to best books list piqued my interest: famous and talented authors wrote about their 2017 picks, instead of Guardian writers and editors. There was a lot of overlap, which made reading the listings even more fun. It gave me the idea to ask the “What We’re Reading & Watching” crew, especially those who did not select best books, to weigh in and talk about their own personal bests of 2017. Those of us who have done quite enough best-picking, thank you very much, just wrote about our latest reads (and viewings). As we count down the old year and look to the new, here’s the usual mixed (gift) bag of books, movies, TV shows, and more.

Mahnaz Dar, Reference and Professional Reading Editor,  LJS
Lately I’ve been combining my viewing and my reading. I’m plowing through Julia Baird’s Victoria: The Queen; An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (Random), after having seen Judi Dench in the film Victoria and Abdul. I put down the heavy tome Saturday night to watch Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, a 1997 film that stars a younger Dench. Victoria, despondent in the wake of her beloved Albert’s death, raises eyebrows when she finds comfort in her servant John Brown. Learning about details such as Victoria’s antipathy toward her eldest son, Bertie, made the viewing a nuanced and pleasurable experience—though I did find myself looking sideways at the film’s portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli, who seems to clash a bit with Brown (per Baird’s biography, Disraeli and Brown enjoyed mutual respect for each other).

I’m hoping to continue my visits with the royals this holiday season. Season 2 of Netflix’s The Crown drops on December 8, and I’m planning to spend some time off from work hunkering down and watching PBS’s Victoria.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I’ve written so many encomiums to the books of 2017 and trotted out my opinion on bests and near-bests so often that I’ll take a break from that. Instead, I’ll just spout some invective about the battle of the sexes, how women in and near the entertainment business are mistreated, and how I’m mad as hell. Again. Maybe forever. I’m mostly mad at myself for blithely referring to the “casting couch” in Hollywood for so many years without ever stopping to consider the meaning. I’m tired of Liz of the past getting all hung up on the Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) murder without seeing that she was a mixed-up 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful who got involved with the wrong people. The really, really wrong people. Piu Eatwell’s investigation into that 70-year-old case, Black Dahlia, Red Rose (Liveright: Norton) presents a nuanced look at Elizabeth and posits a quite credible culprit for her grisly murder. The culprit was aided and abetted, actively and passively, by the good old LAPD and a lot of other people in power, and I found myself shaking my head as I read, saying “same as it ever was.”

Then I was roaming on the Internet and came across NPR “Fresh Air” columnist John Powers’s thoughtful  review of a rerelease of Dorothy Hughes’s classic In a Lonely Place (New York Review Books), complete with Megan Abbott afterword. His analysis of how prevalent the trope of “the murdered woman, be it the Black Dahlia or Laura Palmer or any of a thousand others” is, and how Hughes “puts that reflexive misogyny in the spotlight,” left me in a bit of a funk.  Add to that the early 20th-century true tale of Evelyn Nesbit, whose sad life is most recently chronicled in Simon Baatz’s The Girl in the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Mulholland: Little, Brown). The back cover copy says it all, calling it an “immersive, fascinating look at an America dominated by men of outsize fortunes, and at the women whose lives depended on them.” Ugh. Same as it ever was.

Kiera Parrott, Reviews Director, LJS
As most of my colleagues here at LJ know, I’m super-basic when it comes to my fiction reading choices: I love me a good psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl. Yeah, I know, I know. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And this heart craves depraved, reprehensible people doing nefarious things to other depraved and reprehensible people. I recently picked up B.A. Paris’s Behind Closed Doors at an airport and devoured it on a long flight. It reminded me of Sleeping with the Enemy, but somehow even more infuriating. (I tend to have a love-hate relationship with these kinds of stories.) Last week, I decided to pick up Paris’s sophomore effort, The Breakdown (St. Martin’s). I saw the twist coming pretty early on in this one, but I still inhaled it over a long brunch. They were fun. Not particularly memorable or groundbreaking in any way, but pretty entertaining. A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window is still, hands down, my favorite psychological thriller of 2017. The film noir references alone are enough to recommend it. I’m still on the hunt for a thriller with a wicked twist I don’t see coming. The search continues!

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ

A few of my 2017 best books:

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Metropolitan: Holt)
Not only about end-of-life issues but about quality-of-life issues, and where the two overlap. This practical book is also something of a parable or a koan for life in general, not just dying. Not exactly lighthearted but important, and I think everyone should read it.

Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida (Coffee House)
This one was a weird ride, but I enjoyed it, and it stayed with me for a while after I finished. “Tour de force” is such reviewer-speak that I almost never use the term, but this one was.

Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink (Houghton Harcourt)
Smart, sweet, and historical, with a little mystery, this novel features 17th-century Portuguese Jews in London (by way of Amsterdam) during the Inquisition, counterposed with contemporary London academics tracking down their story via archival documents. Fun and nicely done.

Han Kang’s Human Acts (Hogarth: Crown)
Beautiful and harrowing. Both the writing and translation by Deborah Smith are lovely. The story serves to hammer home the way violence—especially when it’s political in origin—has implications for years and generations afterward.

Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Algonquin)
It’s nice to read a multigenerational coming-of-age book that’s lacking in clichés—and a story that is as much about a parent’s growth her child’s. Strong plot, interesting and nuanced characters, and a great sense of place—both China and New York City are characters.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking)
Terrific, immersive essay writing, with discursions on many things of interest to me. Among them, dealing with a parent’s dementia, compassion, storytelling, libraries, illness, myths and the forms they take, and the natural world.

Two of my 2017 favorites were backlist: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (Harper Perennial), a collection that thrilled me just as much as the stories did when I first encountered them years ago, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (Faber & Faber), a well-written and psychologically astute novel filled with quiet anguish (and some wonderfully dry humor as well).

Etta Verma, WWR Emerita (NISO)
My favorite nonfiction book of this year is the title I’m currently reading, Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born To Run (S. & S.)Springsteen’s bumpy upbringing, largely by a ferociously spoiling grandmother who “could not realize that her untempered love was destroying the men she was raising” and alcoholic father, was wild. “I stayed up until 3am and slept until 3pm at five and six years old,” says Springsteen. It’s incredible to read, and creates striking parenting insights. In what parenting manual can you read as penetrating a sentence regarding childhood as, “Control over your behavior is the only card you have to play in the hope of modifying theirs.” That blew me away.

It’s not all serious, though, by any means. Springsteen’s maternal aunts, the Zerelli sisters, are so enthused about life that “anything more celebratory than dinner and you were taking your life in your hands.” Though his mother hailed from this happy clan, she married a man who was very different, and the contrasts provide more humor: “My mother would read romance novels and swoon to the latest hits on the radio. My dad would go as far as to explain to me that love songs on the radio were part of a government ploy to make you get married and pay taxes.”

And the best novel of the year for me was John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Hogarth: Crown). I wrote about it in a recent WWR, but don’t worry about the details. Just read it!

Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
Just when I thought  Thi Bui’s memoir The Best We Could Do was the most powerful and innovative graphic title I’d see this year, along comes the first volume of Emil Ferris’s astounding debut graphic novel, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters (Fantagraphics). Monsters centers around ten-year- old supersleuth Karen Reyes as she navigates the tragic and suspicious death of her upstairs neighbor Anka. Anka was an eccentric woman to say the least; though gentle and caring, she always seemed blue, thus Karen always “draws” (via Ferris’s hand) Anka with blue skin in her sketchbook. Designed to represent the inquisitive Karen’s doodles, Ferris’s illustrations are a stunning display of immaculate detail done in cross-hatched ballpoint pen. Pulpy monster comic covers are interspersed with arresting character studies of Karen’s family and friends, and renditions of classic art pieces (believe it or not, Karen is quite the art fiend, as well). Set in Chicago during the late 1960s, this book pulls no punches, addressing heavy topics including classism, racism, bullying, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Holocaust. The murder mystery is only one facet of this big, bold novel; along the way, the reader sees Karen grappling with her identity, possible queer desire, and intense personal loss. I don’t think I can stress enough that this book is not just a feast for the eyes; it’s a poignant, devastating tale of a young girl who prefers being a monster to the complicated pain of being human. I can’t wait for Volume 2, due out in spring 2018!

 

 

 

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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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