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What our writers are reading

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We asked our writers to tell us what they've been reading lately. We ended up with some interesting pairings and treblings: two books about movies, two books about English rock gods, two sumptuous titles from a local university press, and even two books about Manchester, England. And then there are three Hunger Games titles and three books about David Foster Wallace... Happy reading, and patronize local indie bookstores wherever possible.



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The Tremor of Forgery
Patricia Highsmith
Grove Press, 272 pages

Crash
J.G. Ballard
Picador, 224 pages

The Drowned World
J.G. Ballard
Liveright, 208 pages

I went on a Patricia Highsmith/J.G. Ballard spree this year, requiring something chill and bracing as an antidote to so much gaseous politics. Highsmith (1921–95) was a crime writer (author of Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc.), but only nominally. Her novels are like de Chirico paintings: studies in off-kilter perspective, objects that don't cast shadows, violence without motive. The lovely title of one of her novels—The Tremor of Forgery—encapsulates her entire aesthetic of the illicit and the liminal. Naturally, her furtive novels of the unconscious sit poorly with those who believe "something must be done," but she will endure among connoisseurs of unnameable unease. Ballard (1930–2009) was a savage critic of the modern order, a dystopian visionary who accepted Lord of the Flies as the eternal human template. Endless in its metaphors of the crystalline, glassine, metallic and reptilian, his work is an exquisite exercise in the poetry (and sometimes the pornography) of the post-human. His masterpieces are The Drowned World (1962) and Crash (1973), though everything he wrote arouses morbid fascination. Martin Amis called Ballard "the most original English writer of the last century." Predictably, the sweater-wearers of the Swedish Academy were not convinced. —David A. Ross


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Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
Crown, 432 pages

You've probably seen this one everywhere—months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list will do that. You may have sniffed at the idea of another blockbuster thriller—lord knows I did, until every critic I know, including the highbrow ones and the ones who don't even usually review books, published raves on this. And there's a reason why—it's not only a superlative thriller but also one of the best and darkest satires of our modern age. The plot is simple—a wife goes missing on her anniversary, and her husband gradually becomes the lead suspect as we flash back to their relationship—but Gillian Flynn, a former reviewer and pop-cultural writer for such places as Entertainment Weekly, grounds the story in a place of dark humor. Virtually every character has some sort of delusion or unhealthy fantasy life, and the way these themes come together in the end is utterly diabolical. It's a blockbuster for a reason. Read it before the inevitable movie comes out—and for God's sake don't flip ahead. I bought the audiobook to keep myself from cheating. It was worth it. —Zack Smith


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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
Sean Howe
Harper, 496 pages

I have an unholy love of comics and also of tales that chronicle the endless decisions, conflicts and impulses that give rise to eras of great creativity, so a history of Marvel Comics was like crack for me. But you don't have to be a True Believer to enjoy Sean Howe's chronicle of the company, though it's clear he knows his comics as well as he knows his research. The best parts of this history involve the heady, unstable era of the 1970s, when Marvel brought in such creative geniuses as Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber. This includes tales such as the one concerning artists wandering through the still-under-construction World Trade Center while under the influence of LSD. And Stan Lee, the divisive figure seen by fans as equal parts auteur and credit-hog for Marvel's biggest characters, becomes a strangely human figure—someone who tried for decades to get Marvel the kind of success in movies it enjoys today, but was never quite able to make the leap from comics. There's plenty of good material on the cutting-room floor here—and I would have liked to have seen a better dissection of the company's tumultuous times in the early 2000s, when their anything-goes attitude produced both classic books and PR nightmares—but that's what sequels are for. —Zack Smith


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Saga Vol. 1
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics, 160 pages

Brian K. Vaughan's comic book epics crackle and build like great episodic television, grounding fantastic premises in real-world contexts. His latest, Saga, keeps the former trait while overturning the latter. In this collected volume of the first six issues, high science fiction and fantasy frame an intimate family drama. A planet where everyone has wings is at war with its own moon, where everyone has horns. Two opposing soldiers fall in love and have a winged, horned baby. Hounded by mercenaries and their native cultures, they embark on an interplanetary quest for a home. Vaughan's expert plotting and wild story turns are vividly rendered by Fiona Staples, whose eloquent lines and gorgeous digital colors enhance all the wonder and grotesquerie. From naked spider-ladies to coldly depicted robot coitus, Saga is racy for Vaughan, but the giddy smut masks a timely story about reactionary forces of race and nationalism threatening one relatable young family. Bargain-priced, it's the perfect gateway into the best comic on the stands, which is a couple issues into its next arc now. Fair warning: In monthly form, the cliffhangers are brutal. —Brian Howe


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A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel
Hope Larson, Madeline L'Engle (original Novel)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 392 pages

Adapting novels into comics is as old as Classics Illustrated, and most efforts are dry, stiff cash-in titles that cram a story into so many dialogue-packed pages like tuna in a can. But Asheville native Hope Larson's adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's classic SF story is the best kind of adaptation—reverent to the original material while still bringing a fresh voice and visual style to the interpretation. Larson has included elements of magical realism in her past graphic novels (one, Chiggers, even draws from her North Carolina camping experiences), and her wide-eyed, expressive character designs are a perfect fit for the tale of Meg Murry journeying to the planet Camazotz through a tesseract to save her scientist father. Larson's Meg is every bit the frustrating, insecure and ultimately heroic figure of L'Engle's book, and her genius brother Charles Wallace is as unsettling and sweet as on the page. In this adaptation, such creatures as Mrs. Whatsit, Aunt Beast and the terrible IT are the manifestations of the fears and uncertainties of the everyday world—and like in L'Engle's book, the children's facing these fears reveals moments of wonders and triumphs. They might never make a decent movie version of this (ignore the made-for-TV one on DVD at all costs), but this is the rare adaptation that's as good as its source material. —Zack Smith


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Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun
Elizabeth Foy Larsen and Joshua Glenn
Bloomsbury USA, 352 pages

I grew up in the 1980s, which meant that I spent an awful lot of time watching TV and loudly demanding action figures from my parents. But my parents were smart: They provided me with plenty of activity books when I was off from school, as well as large fiction compilations I could read. That fine and proud tradition is more necessary than ever in the age of iPads, and Unbored is the key for parents who want to get their kids away from flickering screens while still maintaining the posture of coolness. Featuring such contributors as Douglas Rushkoff and No Impact Man Colin Beavan, Unbored combines activities titled "Curse Without Cursing," "No-Sew Stuffed Animals," "Remote-Controlled Water Blaster" and the like with extensive lists of classic films and books presented in a way to maximize their appeal to kids. Written toward the young audience with a minimum of condescension and a maximum of "here's a cool secret you don't know," it should inspire a generation of creative geniuses, or at least briefly keep a few youngsters off the couch. Check out some of its content for free online at www.unbored.net. —Zack Smith


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The Hunger Games Trilogy
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 1,408 pages

Finding myself with the rarest of all weekends—no class-related materials to read, no papers to grade, no research in need of immediate attention—I plowed through the Hunger Games trilogy. I anticipated clumsy, feeble-minded page-turners, or even worse: a snuff exercise meant to sate a generation of sadistic gamers. I was surprised. Suzanne Collins isn't much of a writer at the sentence level, but, like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, she lords over a large conception, a universe of urgent, endless moral decision. The problem with so-called serious adult fiction is that it is so willfully trivial: a dribble of traumas, resentments and medical problems, the inevitable alcoholic, the distant father, the angry teen, a few euphemized sex scenes, the strained Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps an unobtrusive social message. Their prose may not be lapidary, but the major tween franchises embody something of the canonical spirit. Joseph Conrad would appreciate Collins' grim existential fairy tale. He would snort derisively at the herbal tea-drinkers and their middle-brow book clubs. —David A. Ross


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Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
D.T. Max
Viking, 368 pages

Both Flesh and Not: Essays
David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, 272 pages

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
David Lipsky
Broadway, 352 pages

D.T. Max's Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, the first biography of the rightly revered novelist-suicide, begins with a sort of nervous tiptoe but slowly gains traction and manages to tell DFW's story lucidly and readably. It's a useful stopgap while the world awaits the thousand-page biography that's almost surely gathering on the horizon like a tsunami. David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace is a nearly unedited transcript of a five-day interview conducted in 1996. This strange document has no precedent in literary history: It's "table talk" as logorrheic BP spill. Wallowing in the combination of envy and vicarious fantasy we usually associate with Taylor Swift fans, Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter and then-aspiring novelist, endlessly wants to know how it feels to be famous. These shallows merely underscore DFW's depths. Both Flesh and Not: Essays is an autumnal reaping of DFW's uncollected magazine pieces. The volume constellates with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2005) to form a trilogy that reinvents the style and reconsecrates the ambition of the literary essay. It's fascinating and a little weird to read permanent literature rendered in the accent of our own era and culture. For the Victorians, this experience was routine; for us, it may be once in a lifetime. —David A. Ross


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Who I Am
Pete Townshend
Harper, 538 pages

Considering the force of Pete Townshend's personality and the power of his pen, it's not surprising that Who I Am makes for a compelling slab of rock biography. Townshend, the windmilling, "idiot-dancing" guitarist and creative force behind The Who, has always epitomized the self-conscious rocker—part teen rebel, part tortured creative type striving to make art with a capital A. Townshend's literary voice is as roguishly articulate as his songs. Whether he's recounting the fraught years in the care of his abusive grandmother, an erotic fantasy while alone inside the sleeping quarters of his avatar Meher Baba or his flailing attempt to seduce the actress Theresa Russell, Townshend is never less than engaging. Perhaps inevitably, his account of The Who's rise from paragons of Mod London, trading in "auto-destruction," to the band's breakout at Woodstock is the most exhilarating. Once Keith Moon leaves the picture, the story loosens its grip somewhat; one also yearns to be taken deeper into the songs themselves. But there is plenty to please rock-bio connoisseurs, Who fans and those beguiled by tales from an era when rock stars roamed the earth and lived like debauched kings. —David Klein


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A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
Tony Fletcher
Crown, 698 pages

In this exceedingly well-written, meticulously researched and fascinating portrait of The Smiths, Tony Fletcher makes a convincing case for the band as one of the great groups of any era. Balancing insight and unbridled love, he illuminates the striking originality and audacity of The Smiths' guitar-driven sound in the big-drum, cheap-keyboard-dominated early '80s, when the group's allegiance to '60s-era songsmiths, and even their stripped-down name, were utterly at odds with prevailing trends in pop music. Fletcher sets the scene with care and diligence, delving deeply into Morrissey and Marr's working-class Irish childhoods in Manchester and the hellish Catholic schooling that was so critical in forming Morrissey's dour worldview. The story kicks into high gear 200 pages in, circling back to the pair's legendary first meeting before detailing the band's subsequent emergence—"fully formed"—within a year of its inception. The story of the next five years—from hyper-speed ascent to acrimonious, litigious ending—truly earns the title's claim of "saga." It also provides compelling evidence for why they endure. —David Klein


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Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up
David Conn
Quercus (UK), 432 pages

David Conn, distinguished staff reporter for the London Guardian, has worked for 15 years to understand an essential paradox of English soccer: Never before has the English Premier League been so popular around the world, yet at the grassroots level the game is in grave disarray.

Always a personally discreet reporter, Conn opens up in his latest book, recalling his middle-class childhood in Manchester in the 1960s and 1970s when he supported the then-scrappy Manchester City football team in their decaying old stadium. For decades overshadowed by mighty Manchester United, City has begun to emerge in the last decade, but at the price of being a poster child for modern football, which Conn argues is bloated and unsustainable. In 2008, Conn's boyhood team was purchased by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, one of the world's richest persons. Abu Dhabi, the tiny patch of desert that Mansour's family occupies, happens to be atop a practically bottomless oil field, and the amount of money he has lavished on the once-impoverished club is staggering: approximately £1 billion, or $1.6 billion.

In the aptly titled Richer Than God, part memoir and part reportage, Conn reckons with the global football industry and finds himself drifting away from the emotional attachments of his youth, even as the sheikh's money enables Manchester City to win its first championship in 44 years. —David Fellerath


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The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century
Margaret Talbot
Riverhead Books, 414 pages

A mix of family memoir and showbiz timeline, New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot's book traverses her father Lyle Talbot's career, from tent shows to glamorous 1930s Hollywood working with Ed Wood on Poverty Row and TV's Ozzie and Harriet. Research and insider information blend, and Talbot gossips engagingly while frankly appraising her father's talent: He lacked that intangible magic that makes a working actor a movie star. The last 100 pages of many entertainment bios chart a depressing decline, but in a refreshing reversal, the end of this book is delightfully heartwarming. Talbot has no axe to grind and endearingly describes her close-knit family, ending with her elderly father at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco acknowledging applause for his role as a cad in the pre-Code gem Three on a Match. Biographical dysfunction may sell, but Talbot's tribute to her father is tender, tart and true. —Laura Boyes


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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us
David Thomson
Allen Lane, 608 pages

OK, at this writing I'm just 100 pages into David Thomson's magisterial history of movies, but I can assert that it will be on my bedside table for weeks to come. The U.K.-born Thomson is a rare breed of independent scholar and journalist. He has an idiosyncratic, discursive, yet eminently readable style that sets him apart from virtually every other film writer.

Here, Thomson tackles a story that's been attempted before, but in his own singular voice. He's never more comfortable than when discussing the early decades, when immigrant Jewish hustlers such as Louis Mayer and Harry Cohn, vaudeville circuit survivors such as Buster Keaton and London urchin Charles Chaplin, and visionaries such as D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Erich Stroheim landed in California and set about creating the dream factory. As Thomson shows in his early chapters, Hollywood was created by outsiders both sophisticated and desperate, something he deftly illustrates with the making of Ninotchka, a 1939 masterpiece of wit and cynicism that was co-scripted by a newly arrived Austrian (Billy Wilder), was directed by a German (Ernst Lubitsch) and starred a Swede (Greta Garbo). As usual, Thomson is smart and aesthetically shrewd, yet unpretentious enough to confess laughing helplessly throughout Jackass Number Two. —David Fellerath


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