Darkness and Light | What We’re Reading

This week a skeleton crew of School Library Journal/LJ staff confronts trolls, superflu, Hollywood idols, and some dark, dark desires.

GFDarkPlaces Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, Reviews, SLJ
This week, my reading choices are inspired by film and the theater. In anticipation of the movie Gone Girl (based on the book of the same name by Gillian Flynn), I started reading one of the author’s other works, the aptly named Dark Places (Crown), about a woman, who, as a seven-year-old, survives a horrific massacre that rivals the one that took out the Clutter family. Even darker is the sad, empty turn her life has taken since then; this is Flynn going to even more disturbing places than those presented in the gripping Gone Girl.

I also took in the Broadway musical Cabaret, and while idly reading about Weimar, Germany and the rise of Nazism stumbled across Susan Sontag’s pivotal essay “Fascinating Fascism,” an exploration—and condemnation—of our cultural obsession with Nazi imagery, starting with a takedown of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Here’s a most intriguing excerpt:

In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on?
A clue lies in the predilections of the fascist leaders themselves for sexual metaphors. Like Nietzsche and Wagner, Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the “feminine” masses, as rape. (The expression of the crowds in Triumph of the Will is one of ecstasy; the leader makes the crowd come.) Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface. Certainly Nazism is “sexier” than communism (which is not to the Nazis’ credit, but rather shows something of the nature and limits of the sexual imagination).

StylingStarsLiz French, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
I am fairly bursting with book talk, but at the moment it’s all about titles we’re considering for LJ Reviews’ best books of 2014, so I must keep mum. It’s killing me. I do turn to beautiful art and fashion and performing arts “picture books” for relief and respite. This week I received a copy of one of my BEA Editors’ Picks, Styling the Stars: Lost Treasures from the Twentieth Century Fox Archives (Insight Editions) by Angela Cartwright and Tom McLaren. As most of the publisher’s titles are, it is a visual delight. A snub-nosed Marilyn Monroe in profile graces the cover, a small hat with veil covers her platinum hair, and she’s got a mink stole and rhinestone necklace on. Scrumptious! There are more continuity shots of Monroe inside the book, along with Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Arlene Dahl, etc. etc. Often the hairdressers or costume designers are pictured with the stars, fussing with a lapel or tucking a stray lock of hair back where it belongs. It’s an incredible backstage look at Hollywood during the golden age (and a little beyond) and it soothes my book-addled brain ever so much.

StationElevenLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
Rereading childhood favorites seems to be asking for disappointment, because how can they ever live up to the seismic changes effected on my tiny brain when I was six and eight and ten? But this month I went back to Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books in service of a larger project—keep an eye out for a big Jansson extravaganza happening at Bloom next week—and I’m pleased to report the stories are just as wonderful this time around. They’re sweet without being cloying, mysterious without being overly dramatic, and a little dark in a good way. Plus they capture the best parts of being a kid: building forts, going exploring, eating pancakes, having adventures, and feeling like your mother loves you no matter what. Even if childhood wasn’t exactly like that, it was awfully nice reliving the fantasy through Moomintroll and his friends and family. Total literary comfort food, and if you have children you really ought to be reading these books to them. And the illustrations are marvelous.

In between all that goodness, I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Knopf): superflu, death of 99 percent of humanity, breakdown of society as we know it—just the thing for these days of possible rising Ebola counts. But it was a surprisingly pleasing book and not as bleak as you’d think. Mandel is a fine writer, and her tale of a ragtag Shakespearean theater group and symphony traveling from town to postapocalyptic town is as well staged as such a theatrical plotline deserves. She handles some complex chronology well, and the book starts out with one of the best opening scenes I’ve read in a while. It was immersive and very enjoyable. The takeaway: art may not save us all, but then again it just might.


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