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What We're Reading: Sam Hockley-Smith

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Tired of reading the same recommended books from the usual sources? Just think of our weekly What We’re Reading column as your non-committal book club with The FADER and some of your favorite bands. For this installment, departing Senior Editor Sam Hockley-Smith writes about some recent highlights..

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner: Amber wrote about Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station the other week and then proceeded to talk about it so much that I decided to read it as well. The big selling point for me was when she described it as a self-obsessed dude hiding behind poetry—a dying art to an extent. I'm not going to say that there aren't parallels in my life, but Lerner's protagonist is so far down the rabbit hole it's almost unrelatable: lying about the death of his mother, telling people his dad is a fascist (that part is actually kind of funny because it backfires super hard), even faking tears to the point that he pretty much fools himself into thinking that what he's feeling is real. Ultimately though, for me, Leaving the Atocha Station is a book about loss. Loss of a concrete home, loss of direction, loss of self. What do you do when who you were before doesn't matter anymore? You construct invisible architecture around yourself, you find new friends—and the more honest with yourself about who you're becoming you are, the better your future life will be. The character in this book is dishonest and perpetually unhappy. At once self-aggrandizing and debilitatingly self-deprecating. He assumes the women in his life are smitten with him until he finds out that they're not, at which point they couldn't be less interested in him. The reality is that neither of these situations are true, but his loss of self is so great that all he can hold onto is this idea that somewhere in the recesses of his brain there's a solution to all his problems. I guess this is a spoiler alert, but whatever. At the end of the novel, a chapbook of his poetry is released and he's surrounded by the people he's met in Spain. It's the happiest we've seen him yet, except his wish is to stay in that room, with those people, forever. A self-imposed purgatory. An obsession with the safety of stasis. The takeaway is that this is a temporary fix. He'll walk out of the room he's in feeling warm and loved, and then he'll wake up the next day and something slight will nudge him back into the realm of self-doubt. Leaving the Atocha Station felt like a novel about fooling yourself and how, has damaging as that can be, it's sometimes the best possible solution.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton: Every summer I go on a huge Tim Winton kick. Winton is an Australian author who somehow manages to straddle the line between hyper-literary and completely loose. Dense Australian slang creeps into his books even as he's writing about the desperate loneliness of the continent in a crystaline way. Popular opinion is that Cloudstreet is his defining novel. The classic that made him worth paying attention to in the first place. I read pretty much everything else he wrote before I got to it, and while it's not personally my favorite, I can see why it's so treasured. Winton is exceptional at writing characters into the darkest places imaginable—boxing them into corners and then funneling their desperation into these expansive, messy pages that don't cohere until you've really dedicated yourself to their flow. It's not difficult reading though, it's more like finding a new rhythm, syncing your reading method to it, and then letting it wash over you. While Winton is an expert at working universal truths into his books (you know the kind where you read a paragraph and then want to tear it out of the book and project it onto the biggest wall you can find so everyone can gain from it?), he's also exceptional at stitching small character moments together to create a patchwork of time passed, of families destroyed and then brought back together in new forms.

St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves by Karen Russell:When I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia earlier this year, it blew my mind. It actually changed the way I thought about writing and sentence construction—so I went back to this collection of short stories, her first book. The seeds of Swamplandia are here in a couple stories in a truncated versions. Some of it is repeated in Swamplandia, but for the most part, they act as sketches of key characters. The other material in the book is great as well—it's all united by a couple common threads: water factors heavily into almost every story. It kills people, and reflects them, and keeps them hidden. The other common thread is the pain of growing up. I don't mean, like, puberty necessarily (though that is a strong undercurrent), but more that weird period when you're a kid where you're caught between wanting to grow up and not being quite ready. Characters ditch childhood interests like astronomy and then are plagued by the loss, other characters look around them and see that the people they know all seem a lot more grown up than they are. We know they're not, but it doesn't matter. St. Lucy’s is about lost people seeking refuge. Kids grow older, adults try to be good, everyone is a victim of their circumstances, but Russell gives them power too, an understanding beyond their years, no matter how old they might be.

What We're Reading: Sam Hockley-Smith