Basketball Superstars, Hungarian Schoolgirls, Tidy Bears, Gilded Volumes, Mafia Turncoats, Venomous Puppet Masters | What We’re Reading & Watching

The "What We're Reading & Watching" staffers are watching Michael Jordan and Gene Kelly dance; reading about the lack of honor among mafiosi; experiencing displacement and alienation in wartime Hungary; mingling with British couples; and discovering the humor in Balzac.

The "What We're Reading & Watching" staffers from LJ, School Library Journal, and Junior LIbrary Guild grab some personal reading and watching time as the busy fall season of Best Books and back-to-school busyness opens. We are watching Michael Jordan and Gene Kelly dance; reading about the lack of honor among mafiosi; experiencing displacement and alienation in wartime Hungary; mingling and machinating with British couples; and discovering the humor in Balzac. 

Mahnaz Dar, LJ/SLJUnderboss cover

Along with the other book review editors, I'm in the thick of reading for Best Books. But I made a few last hurrahs! I finished Selwyn Raab's Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires and loved it. Though any illusions nurtured by the likes of The Godfather have been destroyed; one by one, high-ranking mobsters seem to turn on each other, either taking out their rivals or becoming government informants in an effort to beat murder and drug raps. Or both. Reading Raab's work right after Peter Maas's Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia was edifying, as Raab's description of the biography is withering. I'm impressed by how Raab doesn't fall under the spell of the mob; he doesn't romanticize anything.

I also read a thriller, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada. Though written in the 1980s, it was only relatively recently translated into English. It's a locked-room mystery, heavy on the details of a bizarre series of murders and low on character development, but absolutely absorbing. And now? Let the Best Books reading commence!

Kimberly Olson Fakih, SLJ

In the fall of 1980, the man who would become my husband but whom I had not yet met was driving the Connecticut back roads, seeking garage sales, church jumbles, and used bookstores in barns. He was a graduate student at Columbia, had founded a small chain of international magazines shops (the profits, which paid for his schooling, were in international cigarettes, but this was the 1970s). For an extremely paltry five-spot, he bought 100 books that are gilded, just so gold, with red bands on the spine where the title lives, in embossed black type. Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare's Comedies, The Works of Hugo, The Works of de Maupassant, Shakespeare's Tragedies, 1000 World Poems, William Wordsworth, John Galsworthy, Oliver Goldsmith, Anthony Trollope...I cannot go on.

One of these books on a shelf, any shelf, has some brash charm: Is that your family's Bible? The Book of Common Prayer, in uncommon robes? A hundred of these books lined up on a shelf is like living with a painted lady. Lovely, but a bit much? Over 40 years, with him and without him, we have tried to find the perfect spot for them in our small apartment. We have slipped one or two among the cookbooks, the children's book collection, on the reference shelves. We have placed them spine in, but they still glint at us, making us feel ashamed.

Two years ago, after we'd weeded out our holiday decorations, I realized that these are “company” volumes, which get to come out only once a year. They are now living high on a shelf with all the decorations, and then arrive in time to be placed in stacks around the room, each December. In January, one or two always get left behind. This year it's Balzac. To crack it open is to glimpse post-Napoleonic France, and it reads like newspaper clippings in the petty politics, but also like a diary turned inside-out—you understand the characters to their bones. Further, these stories shock me with their humor. He's funny! Why did I avoid him for so long? It took a pandemic, but I can say it: I'm reading Balzac.

Magda Szabo Abigail coverLiz French, LJ

Finally, and just in time for fall and the LJ Best Books season, I’m getting back into reading. The watching has been much easier all throughout COVID captivity, but for a time reading was difficult. I plucked the New York Review Books reissue of Hungarian writer Magda Szabó’s 1970 novel Abigail that had been languishing on my TBR pile and was transported to World War II–era Hungary.

The heroine is a somewhat spoiled 15-year-old girl named Gina, whose father, a general, has swept her away from her comfortable life in Budapest to the Matula, a strict Calvinist school for girls located on the windswept eastern plains of Hungary. Can you say “extreme lifestyle change”? Gina doesn’t understand why she’s been torn from all she knows and loves, and she immediately alienates her classmates when she inadvertently betrays them to the taskmasters in charge. Shunned and terribly lonely, she rebels….and tries to run away. But soon enough she learns why her father has exiled her to the school, and she turns to Abigail, a classical statue in the school garden, who “answers” prayers and requests for help from the students.

Szabó is so good at conveying youthful innocence, ignorance, and confusion; it’s easy to see why this book was a best seller in Hungary. There are many subplots involving dissident activity, wartime losses, romances, friendships, and Gina’s coming of age. The book spurred me to Google Hungarian history as well as the author, and I learned important and not-so-important facts, such as that Szabó and I share a birthday!

Liz Gavril, JLG

Recently, we watched The Last Dance on Netflix. I’m by no means a huge sports fan, but back in the day, I played some sports and still enjoy going to or watching an occasional sporting event. That said, I’ve never particularly liked basketball. (I have always been tall, so when I was growing up, everyone assumed that I excelled at basketball. Nope. My basketball career ended after one or two seasons on a weekend rec team in elementary school.)

And I never particularly enjoyed watching basketball, either—just a bunch of tall people running back and forth in a small space. It always seemed pretty boring. (Sorry, everyone who loves basketball.) I lived through the Michael Jordan era in my teens and 20s and didn’t pay all that much attention at the time. I mean, sure, he was everywhere. And I knew Jordan was good. He was a legend. But it was basketball.

All to say: I was a tad skeptical going in to The Last Dance. We had heard it was good. But was I going to care? For 10 episodes?! As it turns out, yes. The documentary series, which concentrates on Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls but covers much of his career, made me appreciate basketball more, as well as just how good Jordan was. Maybe it’s partially perspective and appreciation that I have now that I’m a bit older, but whoa, the man could bring it. Made me wish that I had paid more attention to Jordan’s play at the time, or that I could go back in time and see some of his games as they happened. His competitiveness is off the charts, and as someone who doesn’t have that particular drive or talent—I would almost always psych myself out in a tennis match—I found it remarkable to see at work.

The team dynamics were fascinating, too. Not to mention some blast-from-the-past commercials that I had forgotten about. Who knew I could be nostalgic about commercials, but yep, “It’s gotta be the shoes.”

Katy Hershberger, SLJBears scare cover

Missing in-person performances, I’ve recently spent my nights watching movie musicals: Singin' in the Rain, Funny Girl, West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors—I have always believed that Rick Moranis is an unsung hero of the 1980s. On the more contemporary side, Mamma Mia! is even more delightfully campy than I expected. That movie knows exactly what it’s doing, and excels at its silliness. As for reading, I’m a longtime Brian Doyle fan—I raved about his musical prose and grace-in-the-mundane storytelling in staff picks as a bookseller—but am only now dipping into his breakout novel, Mink River. Perhaps my delay is because I’m most often reading baby books. A recent favorite is Jacob Grant’s Bear’s Scare, an incredibly charming and well-designed story about tidy Bear and his spider houseguest. Bear’s may be the most well-appointed home in board books.

Lisa Peet, LJ

I just finished my third Iris Murdoch of the year, A Fairly Honourable Defeat—one of her later books, and one that feels like it's synthesized a lot of her themes. There's a large cast of characters, including Hilda and Rupert, a bourgeois, slightly smug middle-aged couple; their spoiled Oxford dropout son Peter; the husband's sweet and insecure younger brother Simon and his slightly aloof partner Axel; Morgan, Hilda's extremely neurotic sister just back from the States and her completely hapless ex-husband Tallis; Tallis's bitter, nasty elderly father, Leonard; and Julius, a manipulative, vaguely evil, but charismatic academic who toys with everyone. Literally—he refers to himself often as a "puppet master," and the whole book centers on his attempts to break up the couples and manipulate everyone's lives, with varying degrees of success.

There's a lot of philosophy, as with all Murdoch's work, but in this case it serves as more of an underpinning to the story line and less of a series of thinky interludes—there's a Satan and a Christ character, lots of Shakespearean machinations and crossed signals and some intensely evocative (and very deliberately doled out) settings. I wouldn't exactly call it a feel-good novel, since bad things happen to decent people and the worst characters emerge to go on with their lives, but there's a tiny (two or three sentences, blink and you've missed it) reveal toward the end that completely changes the reader's understanding of one of the central characters.

It's also notable for her portrayal of the central gay couple as the most sympathetic and stable (and, in a way, decent) of the lot, coming only three years after the decriminalization of homosexual relations in Britain. Maybe not notable for Murdoch, but I imagine it was a breath of good air for a lot of folks reading it in 1970. Anyway, this was a super-entertaining, if often dark, read—a lot of intrigue, some twisty explorations of good and evil, and as a side note, an interesting testimony to the ephemerality of words on paper.

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