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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Roller Skates, Arson, Eliot

August 9, 2013 | by

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Just this morning, I read eagerly through Sam Anderson’s profile of Gary England, Oklahoma’s “benevolent weather god,” in a preview from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. I’ve heard a lot about England—chief meteorologist for Oklahoma City’s Channel 9—over the years from my husband, a native of that lonely corner of the state where the panhandle begins (his hometown of Woodward was hit in 1947 by one of the state’s worst tornadoes). England’s a hero in that part of the country. “It’s Friday night in the big town” is how he would start his end-of-the-week broadcasts, and though I wish Anderson’s article had given us a bit more of England himself, it’s a bittersweet, if subtle, encomium to a bygone time in which weather forecasters weren’t entertainers as much as they were, well, weather forecasters. —Nicole Rudick

It sounds pretty soft, doesn’t it, a book about reading Middlemarch. Might as well write a book about loving the Beatles, or how Proust can change your life. But Rebecca Mead is tough-minded and has a reporter’s impatience with mush. In My Life in Middlemarch, she gives us several unlikely things at once—a lively reading of George Eliot’s novel, an intimate portrait of Eliot herself, and a book about the consolations of getting older. As Mead shows, this is one of Eliot’s great themes, for as Eliot told her diary, “Few women, I fear, have had such reasons as I have to think the long sad years of youth worth living for the sake of middle age.” —Lorin Stein

The premise of Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn–an arsonist targets a small Norwegian town and neighbors wonder if one of their own is responsible–screams crime fiction (it is Scandinavia, after all), but it is something completely different. In the spirit of Georges Simenon’s romans durs and even Flannery O’Connor, the author presents the fires as simply an occurrence: Heivoll dives deeper into the recesses of the isolated human mind, both his and the arsonist’s, presenting a vivid depiction of the darkness that lies dormant inside all of us until we are no longer able to control our desire to destroy. Before I Burn is the story of what happens when, as Heivoll writes in the short prologue, “You have no choice. You walk around gathering all the fragments in your apron.” —Justin Alvarez

I was just given a copy of Rivers by Michael Farris Smith, and I haven’t been able to put it down. At the start of the novel, a series of hurricanes has been tormenting the Deep South for two years; the story follows a Mississippi-born man as he leaves behind the now-demolished landscape of his boyhood. The momentum of this book is propulsive, and unexpected in a novel with a languishing protagonist and stagnant storm conditions. Most impressive of all is the fact that Farris Smith managed to capture my attention with an opening line—and, for that matter, an opening passage, and an opening chapter—about the weather. —Ellen Duffer

I had not read George Saunders until I picked up Pastoralia a couple months ago; since I have often recommended the collection. The titular novella focuses on a history-of-the-world–type theme park, a sort of Disneyland taken to the extreme, where “employees” live full-time, going method, attempting to portray their characters convincingly. But life is hard for the park’s committed denizens, because no one cares about visiting Cave People or Recluses or Russian Peasant Farm anymore. This theme park, like all of Saunders’s settings, exists in an imprecise American future, in which “How My Child Died Violently” is a popular reality TV show and poverty is rampant. The result is terrifying: a fallen—and falling—America, rife with the darkly humorous. —Kate Rouhandeh

When a friend asked me to recommend a good book for an eight-year-old the other day, I used it as an excuse to reread one of my favorites: Roller Skates, by Ruth Sawyer. Although it won the 1937 Newbery Medal, the semi-autobiographical account of a tomboy’s life in 1890s New York can be a little tricky to track down now. But it’s worth it: ten-year-old Lucinda remains one of the most interesting and independent-minded heroines in children’s fiction, and the portrait of the city remains as vivid and engaging as when I first read it, twenty years ago. —Sadie Stein

 

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