Busting Out with Books | What We’re Reading

The "What We're Reading" crew venture gingerly out of their comfort zone to read 180-degree flips, genre switches, and favorite authors' correspondence.
My recent prompt to the “What We’re Reading & Watching” crew was a call to discuss reading something out of their comfort zones, maybe a genre hop or a complete 180-degree flip from fiction to nonfiction (or vice versa). Laura and Etta made that 180 turn; like Etta, I’m primarily a mystery fan, but I genre-hopped to historical fiction in preparation for moderating a panel at LJ’s Day of Dialog.  Lisa also studied and read for the Great Reporting panel she moderated, but stuck pretty close to home as far as comfort zones go. Ashleigh, too, stood by her favorites but stretched her reading to letters between two beloved African American authors. Whatever our zones, we’re always trying to expand our reading horizons here at WWR Land. Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Like my WWR colleague Lisa (see below) and fellow review editors Wilda Williams and Barbara Hoffert, I moderated a panel at LJ’s annual Day of Dialog, the Top Historical Fiction discussion. In order to know what the heck I was talking about, I had to binge on some really great historical fiction titles (poor little me, right?). I don’t want to pick favorites among the five books (and authors), so I’ll just talk briefly about each: B.J. Shapiro’s The Collector’s Apprentice (Algonquin) is set in the 1920s and the art world, big pluses in my opinion; Ramin Ganeshram’s The General’s Cook (Arcade: Skyhorse) makes you feel the tension and indignities of living every day as a slave in 1790s Philadelphia; Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether (Sourcebooks Landmark) uses her trademark parallel narrative storytelling to excellent effect; Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria: S. & S.) also has artists behaving badly and madly as in Shapiro’s novel, and multiple time lines and viewpoints, as in Kearsley’s, but she goes further, with a murder, family secrets, and a ghost. There’s a murder in Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives (Morrow), too, and several time lines, but she adds class conflict and the 1969 USA moon landing to her story. Each novel has such a strong sense of place—I was transported out of my comfort zone into each of their worlds, and the trips were exciting to boot.  Laura Girmscheid, Research Manager, LJS I usually read fiction but picked up Garrett M. Graff’s Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die (S. & S.) at the recommendation of a friend. The book is about the U.S. government’s Continuity of Government (COG) program that’s been in place since the Cold War. It discloses formerly secret bunkers located around the country and highlights the workings of one called Raven Rock near Camp David in Maryland. These were designed to withstand global nuclear war and preserve the country’s government as well as various U.S. artifacts. The program doesn’t care who is president so long as there is a president. If you’ve ever watched Designated Survivor, you are familiar with the idea of an order of succession to the presidency. I’m not too far into the book, but it's easy to read. I think I’m going to like it! Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ Earlier this month I read Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Algonquin), by Tim Mohr, as part of prep for the Day of Dialog panel I moderated on Great Reporting. And this fit the bill; I liked it quite a lot. The subject matter hit a bunch of my sweet spots: history as viewed through a specific lens, events that happened in my adult lifetime, and early punk rock. In this case, as the title would indicate, the book focuses on the fall of the Berlin wall and what part was played by the early punk movement in the DDR and Eastern Europe, from 1981 through 1989. Mohr has good sources in addition to opened Stasi records, which he admits are pretty dry, and his narrative is very engaging—he's obviously making sure his voice matches up with the subject without falling into total inarticulacy, so lots of short, sharp sentences, sometimes repeated like song choruses, and plenty of profanity. As someone who was involved in the downtown NYC punk scene starting in roughly 1981, I was fascinated by the contrast. I definitely consider what I was part of as a scene, rather than a movement. It may have stemmed from adolescent (and post-adolescent) rebellion and a dislike of conformity on my end, but it didn't carry the same kind of life-and-death charter—no one I knew was going to jail for their beliefs (other than public intoxication, maybe), or having to dodge police to make the music they wanted to make or attend concerts or marches. So even though I know my history, and have read a fair amount about the end of the DDR and the Communist regime at the time, this was an interesting filter to drive home the import of what a lot of young people were dealing with there and then. It also sparked a wave of nostalgia, and I stayed up too late last week Googling photos of punks in the early 80s East Village and falling down a few where-are-they-now rabbit holes. Not everyone I knew then has aged well; imagine. Henrietta Verma, WWR Emerita Amanda's discussion of I'll Be Gone in the Dark in the last installment of What We're Reading was so compelling that the book is now high on my TBR list. That would be out of my comfort zone—I'm a big mystery novel reader, but for some reason hardly ever read true crime. At the moment I'm more in my zone, though pushing it a little with the kind of angsty mom who's a little too like me for my liking. The mom in question, Nina Browning, stars in Emily Giffin's All We Ever Wanted; her son has done something awful at a party, and she and the victim's father are the only ones taking it seriously. The first half of this book got me through a bumpy, scary plane ride, so it must be good, but if Nina's wealthy, obnoxious husband doesn't get his comeuppance soon, I'll throw my Kindle at the first rich guy I see.  Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ So this book is kind of a cheat when it comes to extending beyond my comfort zone. I'm very familiar with Audre Lorde's work, and I'm pretty vocal about it—so much so that a colleague handed me Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974–1989 (Midsummer Nights) unprompted the moment it showed up at our office! But I haven't read many letters between writers. I'm almost too excited to read this, so I'm really trying to take my time and savor the exchanges between these amazing black lesbian writers who were hugely influential in the black feminist arts and who continue to shape queer studies today. It feels like a gift to experience their friendship through the written mundanities of their lives and to "eavesdrop" (as Mecca Jamilah Sullivan calls it in the introduction) on the ways in which they supported each other. It seems that Lorde liked to send Parker gifts, including a check for stamps and Bazooka Bubble Gum, and playfully but firmly asked Parker to send her work for personal critique or publication. The pair exchanged confidences about community organizing and the need to work with youth, with prisoners, and with the public overall while navigating the bureaucracy and limitations of institutions like the public school system and the National Endowment for the Arts ("Nothing connected with the NEA is only what it seems to be on the surface," Lorde wrote in an early undated letter). I've barely skimmed the surface of this text, and I already feel like I've learned so much about these two brilliant creators.    

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