Obsessions & Other Stories | What We’re Reading & Watching

Sometimes I don’t have a theme or genre in mind for the “What We’re Reading & Watching”  column; sometimes a theme emerges from the tangled, twisted threads woven by WWR/W contributors. This time there doesn’t appear to be too much cohesion, but there are some obsessions. Amanda’s true crime fixation is spurred by Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book (and wall-to-wall coverage of the arrest of a suspect after more than 40 years). Lisa’s love of a fist-pump ending is satisfied by Morgan Jerkins’s collection of essays; Etta’s quest for knowledge is stoked by Atul Gawande; Ashleigh’s binge reading is rewarded by Brian K. Vaughan; my enjoyment of Greek choruses (and weird cineastes) goes to the movies; and Meredith’s goal of being our A-one sf/fantasy reader gets a little bit closer. Come closer and read all about our obsessions. 

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
The things I’ve read and watched recently make me worried for the human race. In the 1988 (or 1989, sources differ), Martin Donavan cult movie Apartment Zero, which is set in postdictatorship Buenos Aires, after CIA-sanctioned death squads killed thousands of Argentines, a repressed cineaste meets his match. It’s not a political film per se; more like an allegory with big nods to Hitchcock, Chabrol, and Polanski. It stars a very young Colin Firth as the cineaste (resident of Apartment Zero) and a charming and impossibly handsome Hart Bochner as his new American roommate with a shadowy past. The building where Firth’s character lives is inhabited by a Greek chorus of character actors—I just realized I enjoy films with Greek choruses, that was the best part of There’s Something About Mary. Firth went on to play Darcy and King George and many other important roles. Bochner went on to direct and star in smaller films (he was particularly vile in a lil ole movie you might’ve heard of, Die Hard), but he’s mesmerizing in this film, like watching a beautiful snake hypnotize its prey.

My recent reading matter includes some fashion books for an upcoming roundup in LJ and an assignment for my Golden State Killer–obsessed colleague Amanda (see below): reviewing Francine Prose’s What To Read and Why (Harper). My admiration for Prose increases with every essay, though in the beginning it seemed to me that every chapter was a discussion of how horrible humans can be and how beautifully authors such as Dickens, Balzac, Bolaño, and Eliot convey this behavior.

Amanda Mastrull, Assistant Editor, LJ Reviews
They caught the Golden State Killer (GSK). I can’t believe I’m writing that, but I am. I’ve written before in WWR that it’s a case I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since I first picked up a galley of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Harper) late last year. It’s led me to watch all the television specials I can find about it and is, arguably, what’s gotten me into podcasts. The suspect—whose DNA is a match to both the northern California rapes and the southern California murders attributed to this offender—is a former cop, who worked as a cop during the rapes, and was ultimately fired after he was caught shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. It’s incredible that he was able to stay under the radar, but his name had never before come up as a suspect. It’s been fascinating to hear retired Contra Costa County cold case investigator Paul Holes discuss how they ultimately identified GSK (this is one such interview, though Holes has also appeared on things such as this New York Times podcast, which I listened to during a recent commute). Holes, who spent decades investigating the case and was instrumental in originally linking the northern and southern California crimes, utilized an open-source DNA website, where people upload their DNA profiles to try and find relatives, to track the suspect down from distant relations. He and other investigators found a common ancestor from the 1800s and built family trees out from that relative to find someone in the family who fit the demographic (age, located in California during the crimes, etc.). The method raises larger questions about DNA and the way people freely share it to ancestry-related websites without knowing (or, perhaps, caring) how it might be used by others, but right now all I’m concentrating on is that they got him. As I read and watch the news coverage, I find myself thinking of the letter McNamara wrote to the GSK, excerpted from her book and published in The New Yorker.

The doorbell rings.
No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.
This is how it ends for you.
“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.
Open the door. Show us your face.
Walk into the light. 

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ
I recently read a new essay collection, Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (Harper Perennial). It was my pick for my newish book group, which has a feminist/lefty slant, and though I hadn’t read the book at the time I suggested it, I’d heard enough about it, and follow Jerkins on Twitter, so I thought it would be a good choice. The collection juggles a lot of contrasting thought about the intersection of blackness, womanhood, and privilege, and for the most part I think Jerkins managed it well. She’s smart and thoughtful, and I’ve learned a lot from what she has to say. Her youth works both for and against her—against because sometimes it feels like all her triggers are on the surface of her writing, which doesn’t always serve her as an essayist with a point to develop. On the other hand, her enthusiasm and earnestness are very much in her favor, and keep her thoughts fresh and far away from any kind of polemics. I did wonder if the essays are presented in any kind of chronological writing order, or if it was just well edited as a collection, because her thoughts and expression progress to a triumphant note—that’s probably my secret shameful love of the fist-pump ending showing, but whatever, it worked. I’m looking forward to the discussion it will spark—not only the intersectional politics but Jerkins’s thoughts on hair, porn, and inconvenient body parts.

Meredith Schwartz, Executive Editor, LJ
I’m reading Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell’s The Tangled Lands (Saga), set in a world in which magic works—but its use causes escalating ecological disaster. I’m not far enough in yet to know what I think yet.

Henrietta Verma, WWR/W emerita
I’ve stopped reading my library copies of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Creativity and Flow (Harper Perennial). They were both excellent and I’m going to buy them and dip into them now and then as work allows. It might take a while! I got further into Flow, which taught me something about my current work endeavor, devising information literacy lessons. People experience their happiest and most productive moments, says Czikszentmihalyi, when they are challenged by figuring out something that’s a little difficult for them. So the key to engaging bored students is to make things harder…that was not intuitive for me and was helpful to learn.

Now I’m reading, also to expand my way of thinking about education, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right (Metropolitan). I heard surgeon and author Gawande give the Benjamin Menschel Distinguished Lecture at Cooper Union recently and learned more about his work with medical checklists. He made it clear that small improvements in a process can result in big changes, and that even if the changes are small, they’re better than waiting to make a major transformation that might never happen.

Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
I just binge read Volumes 1–4 of Saga author Brian K. Vaughan’s “Paper Girls” series from Image Comics, and I’m hooked! In this comic, four tween girls—Mac, K.J., Tiff, and Erin—start their day on their typical predawn paper route and end up plummeting through the space-time continuum into lands future and past. So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying the girls’ developing friendships and individual identities; these coming-of-age components are skillfully woven through adventures into prehistoric periods and fights with enormous future bots. The nostalgia factor is strong with callbacks to 1980s media alongside the tech-terror of Y2K, and the art feels like an homage to classic comics blended with sherbet tones and no-nonsense preteen moxie. As usual, I’m a little lost on plot logistics, such as the chronological foldings and the “time war” factions, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be—and it’s an awesomely wild ride.

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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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