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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

July Reads 2020

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Ottessa Moshfegh, Death In Her Hands

Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark

Ben Phillipe, Field Guide to the American Teenager

Zadie Smith, Feel Free

Prince, The Beautiful Ones

Samantha Irby, Meaty

Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

Before you go thinking Damn, what a list, let me just share that my June reading list has two titles on it:  Murakami’s Dance, Dance, Dance and Shakespeare’s Othello.  Sometimes I read super slow.  And those two books gave me some trouble for sure, which is perhaps why they were my only two.  How exactly did Iago convince all those people he was a good guy when he so clearly wasn’t?  Jeez.  

I digress.  Here’s my July reading list. Less misogyny, more memoir.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Death In Her Hands (2020)

Death In Her Hands is Ottessa Moshfegh’s most recent title, released in May 2020.   Among Moshfegh’s many strengths is her ability to create narrators with complex, powerful interiority, and in the case of Death In Her Hands, we are invited to see the depth to which our inner selves create barriers to understanding reality.  This book’s narrator, Vesta Gul,  is a widow who has recently moved to the rural New England community of Levant (definition of “levant”:  to run away, especially from a debt).  On her daily walk in the woods she discovers a note that reads,  “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The note creates the central mystery of the novel, inspiring Vesta to construct Magda’s world, treating the murder like a real crime she's been assigned to solve. But, did the murder even happen?  What is there really to go on here?  My suspicion of Vesta's unreliability grew over time; despite her incredibly detailed imaginary case against Magda's killer, "Blake", I never really believed that the murder happened and sometimes doubted the note was even real. What a delicious contrast between Magda's thoroughly developed character and Vesta's hazy past!

Vesta is not a narrator you’ll like.  She’s stingy and unhappy, denying herself even the smallest comfort or ease. For example, in reflecting on her daily breakfast of a cold bagel and leftover coffee, she says,  “I hadn’t bought myself a toaster. It seemed like an unnecessary luxury when I had a perfectly good oven.  But who wants to heat an entire oven just to warm a bad bagel? It didn’t matter.” Personally I’d suggest that a world without toast is not a world I want to live in; nevertheless, this example clearly illustrates her belief that such luxuries might be wasted on her.  “That was why I came here, to Levant,” she says, “only to do exactly what I wanted.” We realize over time that Vesta’s late husband was a controlling philanderer.  Her constant fantasizing, speculation about others, and criticism of her neighbours, whom she is sure dislike her, make sense given this background. Vesta is precisely the type of prickly and complicated woman Moshfegh excels at creating.

Is the mystery solved by the end of the novel?  Well, sort of.  Vesta’s imaginary story of Magda is what will draw you in, but the mystery of Vesta herself is where the true story lies.

Samantha Irby, Meaty (2013)

If you enjoy a crusty narrator who is willing to really go there when it comes to gross details, please please read anything written by Samantha Irby!  You may know her most recent publication, Wow, No Thank You!, which I have heartily recommended to everyone I know since reading it this spring.  Meaty, published in 2013, contains more of Irby’s tragic origin story (not funny at all) as well as comprehensive descriptions of what it is like to live with Crohn’s (tons of pooping, mostly in inconvenient times and places, which is to say, very very funny).  I could probably have done without the chapters that are just recipes for cocktails or frittatas, and the one where she itemizes what is wrong with every single part of her physical body, but overall it's dead easy to be invested in these tales of the humbling experience of being human. Her newer work may be less self-critical and more polished, but I promise you will not regret reading these honest and hilarious stories.

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

Zadie Smith’s Feel Free is also a collection of previously published work.  Comprising essays published since 2010, some pieces feel a bit dated (“Fences: A Brexit Diary”,  for example, and some of the Harper’s columns) and I wasn’t so into following her train of thought for every single essay.  This is a shameful truth for me to admit, because basically my belief is that Smith could write a new version of the phone book and I'd call it a masterpiece. She can analyze a piece of art you've never seen in a way that makes you feel smart and knowledgeable, and her extensive piece on Key and Peele (written for The New Yorker pre-“Get Out”) and her interview with Jay Z are brilliant pieces of reflective journalism. Plus, she once met J.G. Ballard at a party, an anecdote worth seeking out if ever you need to be reminded that avant garde artists can be real weirdos.

Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist (2020)

I’m only briefly going to talk about Adrian Tomine’s memoir here, because in my future I see a longer and sharper piece of writing about the male cartoonist’s inferiority complex (see also:  Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Craig Thompson, Daniel Clowes... Jesus guys, get it together.)  But if you love Tomine, as I do, and you appreciate his gorgeous line work and honesty in storytelling, this book will not disappoint you.  And if you’ve ever had or witnessed a panic attack, you’ll appreciate the accuracy of Tomine’s depiction of one near the end of the book.  

Side note:  Has anyone seen or read the actual story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?  Because ever since Holden Caulfield name checked it in Catcher In the Rye that title keeps coming back to symbolize a certain kind of male suffering.  Does the source material match its many references?  I’m going to find out.  #research2020

Prince and Dan Pipenbring, The Beautiful Ones (2019)

Do you think you know Prince?  Me neither!  I drew some conclusions, based on the way he dressed, his writing, and his fans.  I certainly was never alone in thinking, that man is a superstar.  So I was kind of into learning lots more about him through The Beautiful Ones, a memoir full of gorgeous photos and handwritten drafts of the words to some of his greatest songs. 

Six months before his death, Prince engaged writer Dan Pipenbring to help him research and write the memoir.  After agreeing to hire Dan for the job, Prince wrote fifty pages worth of memories about his childhood and his parents on looseleaf paper and then handed it to Dan to read in a hotel room in Melbourne. In his introduction to the book, Pipenbring describes the experience of this initial reading: "Prince's handwriting was beautiful, with a fluidity that suggested it poured out of him almost involuntarily. It also verged on illegible. Even in longhand, he wrote in his signature style, an idiosyncratic precursor of text speak that he'd perfected back in the eighties: "Eye" for "I", "U" for you, "R" for "are". The book carefully reproduces these symbols even in the conventionally typewritten version of the notes, and as a reader I never quite got used to seeing a picture of an eye where I was looking for an "I" or a "4" in the middle of a word like "per4mance". Somehow it all works better in his song titles and lyrics. "I Would Die 4 U", yo.

Prince’s death in 2016 (he had no will!  WTF!) temporarily shut down the project, but ultimately Dan agreed to work with what he had, and the result is this book.  Beyond Dan’s introduction and the original handwritten pages, which are reproduced here both in their original form and in regular text, no new details have been added.  How did Prince learn to play so many instruments?  He doesn’t say! What was it like to tour Purple Rain?  Who were the most important people in his life, besides his parents?   How could his writing be so simultaneously filthy and gorgeous?  Reading this book will not tell you those things.  But you can read the internet for that kind of information.  Check out this book for its many amazing photos of a young and sexy Prince, just getting started, confident AF from the very beginning.

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (2020)

This, David Mitchell's most recent tale, tells the story of the birth of a rock 'n roll band in 1967 London. The book is divided into chapters based on song titles, each chapter narrated by its song's author. Bassist Dean Moss, singer and keyboardist Elf Holloway, and guitarist Jasper de Zoet do most of the writing, and theirs are the voices we come to know best. But, there are narrative turns given to drummer Griff, and Levon Strickland, the band's Canadian-born manager as well.

One of my favourite anecdotes about David Mitchell explains his phenomenal vocabulary.  As a child he had a stutter, and a strategy he relied on to avoid getting stuck on words he could not say was to substitute their synonyms. His brain has been trained to find and choose words precisely for a long time.  I promise, in Utopia Avenue, his most recent title, and in all the others, you will come across a word you didn’t know existed and it will be very humbling.  You will also find truly flawed and lovable characters, a depiction of London in the late sixties, and a ton of actual musicians from the time: John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and so many more. Levon spends a debauched night out with Francis Bacon; Dean drops acid with Jerry Garcia; at a Chelsea Hotel party, Elf commiserates with Janice Joplin about being a woman in music. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be a deep dive into cheap boomer nostalgia, but here, somehow, Mitchell (not a boomer) makes the time period feel personal and new, just as it is for his characters.  

If you are hoping for a bit of weirdness and maybe some horology, in the vein of Cloud Atlas, or The Bone Clocks, you will find it through the character Jasper de Zoet, guitar genius and bodily host to the evil abbot originally seen in Mitchell's Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This spirit has travelled through time via the de Zoet lineage and appears to Jasper in the form of a destructive auditory hallucination called "Knock Knock". Mitchell fans know better than to accept the conventional medical explanation of mental illness for Jasper's experiences, and will enjoy the novel's (short) digression into its historical origins, featuring familiar characters from the previous novel. At the same time, even if you have a low tolerance for such narrative shenanigans, enjoy the story for what it is: a romp through the late-sixties with a bunch of talented writers and musicians, some of whom you already know.

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