brendon barnes, culture editor -
Per a recommendation from the hosts of My Favorite Murder (a comedy/true-crime podcast that used to be great and now is just fine), I’ve been listening to a nonfiction audiobook called Whoever Fights Monsters (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1993). The book, written by Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman, details Ressler’s decades of experience profiling serial killers - a term he himself created. Since James Comey’s written testimony went public, I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to Ressler’s sentences, and he writes in the kind of clean and lucid prose you might expect from someone who has had to exercise great control over language in order to conduct useful interviews with multiple murderers. In the book, he shortchanges his own personal history in order to get right into the heart of how he profiles criminals, using examples both well-known and unfamiliar to true crime junkies. Profiling, Ressler admits, is an art, but seeing how and where physical sciences and psychology intersect with his process has been very compelling. Early in the book, Ressler lays out the crimes of Richard Trenton Chase and how Ressler himself was able to create an eerily specific profile (based only on information from the crime scenes) that, once Chase was captured, corresponded perfectly to the killer. For fans of true crime nonfiction, or anyone who wants to indulge in some real competence porn, this book is worth considering.
madison bernath, managing editor -
This month I reached into my backlog and pulled out a couple of books I was ashamed I’d never read: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (HarperOne, 25th anniversary edition, 2014) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986). It’s been a distressing few weeks.
The Alchemist should be uplifting. Pursue your Personal Legend. Triumph over obstacles and know that they are only a part of the journey. In the end, you will find your spirituality and self-fulfillment. Only, I didn’t identify with the ambitious boy who set out to achieve his Personal Legend. I didn’t even identify with the crystal shopkeeper who knew his Personal Legend and was afraid to obtain it for fear of disappointment. According to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, your Personal Legend is “what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.” But what if a person has forgotten their Personal Legend, or, perhaps, has never had one? If you know your true destiny, there’s a lot of spiritual advice this book to help you obtain your goal. If you don’t, you’ll wind up finishing the book with an ache in your heart, not for what you didn’t achieve, but for never knowing what you wanted to accomplish.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the scariest novel I’ve ever read. She isn’t one to make up worlds from thin air. Everything in the book is based on reality (WWII, Puritan law, world events of the 1980s), and that is what is so frightening. In this story, the US Congress and President are shot down. The deed is blamed on Islamic terrorists. Emergency safety laws are enforced, supposedly temporary. Instead, rights are taken away little by little until all that’s left is a society where women cannot own money or property, and the only legal sexual acts are state-sanctioned ceremonies. Handmaids are, essentially, sex slaves. The horror of this book is that, though the end result does seem completely insane, Atwood renders the decline of society in a way that’s familiar. The grief and bewilderment of Offred, our protagonist, is not unlike the stories recalled by Holocaust survivors. Atwood reminds us that we are not stable. That our world can change on a dime. People are not safe from each other, and civilized society is not inherently “good.”
eric fershtman, editor-
Years ago, as a still-very-much-acned sophomore in college, I took a survey course on science fiction literature. Of this course I remember basically nothing, except I do recall reading the first few chunks of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (Doubleday & Company, 1951-53) – I can remember Hari Seldon, the famous psychohistorian – psychohistory being the mathematically-derived practice of predicting human-group behavior – and his mysterious plan to spark a second Galactic Empire from the rapidly extinguishing embers of the first, and I can remember Salvor Hardin (whose initials, coincidentally, are Hari Seldon’s initials, backwards), the very first Mayor of the Foundation, and by far the savviest and most aphoristic, rescuing the tiny colony from its first, and simplest, Seldon Crisis, and wresting political power from the Encyclopedists – the original, incompetent administrators of the Foundation – in the process.
I remember Foundation because the politics are realistic and cool and because Asimov was clearly interested in interrogating the various theories of history, and more particularly how events might collide such theories together – I’d slogged through War and Peace only months before that course; I knew the Great Man Theory of history, in which events are dictated and controlled by, yes you guessed it, solitary, luminous figures, was essentially dead and the sociohistorical theory had risen to take its place. Asimov, in his Foundation series – to which I’ve just returned, after a nearly ten-year hiatus – attempts to chart a new course, the aforementioned ‘psychohistorical’ theory of History. This theory accounts for human behavior, unlike the sociohistorical theory, but only within groups; it appears to break down, as Asimov acknowledges in the second two books, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation, in the presence of truly extraordinary individuals, like the Mule, who can control other people’s emotional states, and puts this power to use engendering loyalty in various powerful figures across the Galaxy. Thanks to this superpower, the Mule establishes an Empire within five years of bursting onto the scene, but – when he dies, so does his Empire, because no other man has the power to control minds the way he does.
The series is full of uncomfortably relevant historical lessons like this one; Asimov, decades and decades before our past couple of US presidents, figured out that one cannot rule by personality alone – something far more robust is needed, or else your legacy dies with you. Ultimately, Asimov abandons the project about four hundred years into its history; where he leaves off – with a combination of two Foundations – one physical, which has survived conquest and despotism, and the other mental, a kind of deep state of men, utterly hidden, who step in to control and correct events when they veer from the Seldon plan – steering the Galaxy toward Empire (itself not the fundamentally good thing that Asimov implies it to be), is not comforting. But it is interesting, and worth the read.
rachel kolman, contributing culture editor -
Continuing in the thread of reading female comedian memoirs, I finished Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks into a Bar (Avery, 2013) this month. It’s incredibly funny. And also particularly well-written – Dratch knows how to keep chapters short, anecdotes amusing, and to self-deprecate in a way that’s still sort of charming. Her behind-the-scenes SNL days are perhaps the best chapters of the book, but even when the memoir transitions into meeting her husband and getting pregnant in her forties, Dratch doesn’t linger too long in the romance. Dratch makes sure to keep the same sassy tone and quippy energy to not become overly sappy or emotional. It’s a quick read (just over 200 pages), and next to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, perhaps my favorite female comedy memoir I’ve read (sorry, Amy Poehler).
allie pinkerton, creative editor -
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (Riverhead Books, 2016) has been on my list a long time, so I was excited to get to it this month. It’s a character-driven novel that follows teenage Nadia through a tumultuous period after her mother’s suicide. Nadia and her boyfriend, Luke, get pregnant. Nadia fears she may be judged after she gets an abortion and goes to college across the country. When she returns after graduation, Nadia and Luke reconnect and begin to have an affair, even though Luke is married to Nadia’s best friend, Audrey. The affair ends when Luke asks Nadia to lie to Audrey.
A group of older women who attend Upper Room, Nadia and Luke’s church, judge (and pity) Nadia. Bennett writes these sections in first-person plural, and in these sections the reader definitely feels the pressure that Nadia feels as she tries to keep her past from interfering with her present.
Bennett writes amazing sentences. Each word is carefully chosen, and I admire her attention to detail on the sentence level while still being able to juggle layered characters with complex problems. The Mothers asks interesting questions about how we handle the pressures of expectations placed on us by people we love.