Rethink, Reread, Reexamine | What We’re Reading & Watching

As summer’s longest day approaches, the LJ/School Library Journal WWR/W crew examines books and shows in a new light.

As summer’s longest day approaches, the LJ/School Library Journal WWR/W crew examines books and shows in a new light.

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJ

McGowan FBI book coverI've been working my way through books and TV series about organized crime this spring, but this week, I decided to jump over to the other side of the aisle, with Ghost: My Thirty Years as an Undercover FBI Agent by Michael R. McGowan and Ralph Pezzullo. McGowan went undercover to infiltrate the Italian American and Russian mafias, and he helped take down international drug dealers. It's thrilling stuff, but given the new scrutiny that we're applying to law enforcement, I can't help reading in a new light.

McGowan is up front about the ways in which he played fast and loose with the law: drinking while doing SWAT Team practice exercises (then driving home) and losing his temper and hurling an informant across the room. I've never had any illusions about law enforcement, but the book just further reinforces for me the idea that we should look at police and FBI agents not necessarily as heroes but simply as people, often prone to the same vices as those they're trying to hunt down. Ghost has made for fascinating reading alongside my rewatch of The Sopranos, a show in which neither FBI agents nor mafiosi are the heroes—almost everyone is deeply flawed and capable of being corrupted.

Liz French, LJ

All in one big gulp, I read an advance copy of Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching, which releases in September. Cole is known primarily for her award-winning romances, but here she writes a hybrid billed as a thriller—there’s romance, action aplenty, history, conspiracies, and heartbreak in this story about the gentrification of a historically Black neighborhood in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Sydney Green, has moved back to the brownstone where she grew up after a messy divorce. The neighborhood has changed and not all for the better. After taking a historic Brooklyn tour that literally whitewashes her neighborhood’s history, Sydney decides to make her own tour. Her research and observations are threaded through the narrative, which includes chapters from her point of view and that of an unhappy new neighbor, Theo; sinister “neighborhood group” chats; racist incidents between old and new residents; and urban myths about a nearby medical facility that’s being converted to a big pharma company’s headquarters. So much in this book! It made me rethink what I know and believe about my adopted hometown of NYC and its bloody history; plus it’s a damn good read.

Cathy Hoey, LJ/SLJ

Rufi Thorpe Knockout Queen book coverI just finished The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe. I love stories of screwed up childhoods and this one fits the bill nicely. Next-door neighbors Michael, living with his aunt and struggling with his sexuality, and Bunny, at six-foot-three and struggling with her body image, become fierce friends. As they come into adulthood, we see them each searching for love and acceptance when an awful experience sets them on wildly different paths. LOVED IT!

Lisa Peet, LJ

I recently reread Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, for an impromptu virtual book club christened the Iris Murdoch Fan Girls, which met via Zoom last week. I had read it a couple of years ago, but enjoyed it so much more this time around. And I use the word enjoyed, rather than liked, on purpose—it was a thoroughly fun read and I did like it, but I'm also fascinated by Murdoch's talents for plotting (especially set pieces), description, evoking characters (I won't say character development because most of them don't develop anywhere, but she certainly does know how to set them up), and one of the best dog/human relationships I've read in a while. You could say that's actually the central love story, since Murdoch's human affairs aren't particularly touching—think Shakespeare's characters all running around in the woods hooking up with the wrong people (thanks, Iris Murdoch Fan Girls Book Club, for that image). And the nominal sex is awful. But everything else is pretty wonderful, and it's interesting to see how Murdoch pieces it all together. The ending is more uplifting than I remembered, too, and sweeter in general.

Though, speaking of pacing, one thing that I get a kick out of is the way she interjects these little philosophical treatises into the narrative. It reminds me, if Ms. Murdoch will beg my pardon, of the way middling erotica is set up: You have the story line, and then the doorbell rings and it's the plumber, which sets the scene so everyone can have sex, and then they're done and the rest of the story goes ahead until there's another bit set up for the express purpose of more sex—or, in Murdoch's case, more philosophical discussion—etc. It's quite charming. I can't remember reading anything contemporary that's quite like this one, or maybe like Murdoch, period. Next month we'll be reading her The Bell, so I'll let you know.

Vanessa Willoughby, SLJ

Octavia Butler Sower coverI’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Published in 1993, Butler’s 10th novel centers on 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, a gifted girl who attempts to reclaim her power in a world gone mad. Set in California in the early 2020s, Butler’s dystopian narrative describes a broken society that has succumbed to depravity, brutality, and lawlessness. Lauren and her family live in a walled-off community; every trip into the city is a horror show, conjuring images of The Purge or Mad Max: Fury Road. However, Lauren may be the key to humanity’s redemption. I’ve read some of Butler’s work before (KindredFledgling) and admire her ability to use the sf genre to reflect and critique very real conditions of our culture.

In Parable, Butler’s artistic vision is eerily prophetic: California in 2024 is ravaged by global warming, drought, the weaponizing of religion in order to oppress the masses, rampant homelessness, and massive class inequality. In the book’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, a presidential candidate named Andrew Steele Jarret promises to “make America great again.” Butler’s influence is undeniable. It can be seen in a wide range of literature and other media, from Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade to Afrofuturism itself.

I just started watching I May Destroy You by showrunner Michaela Coel. Only two episodes have been released so far, but it’s shaping up to be a nuanced, layered exploration of the trauma of sexual assault.

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