What We’re Reading: Amber Bravo

August 10, 2012

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, Deputy Editor Amber Bravo talks ("as a woman") about some of her recent faves.

The End of Men: And the Rise of Women by Hannah Rosin: Props to Hannah Rosin for not backing down on the cover design of her new book, the excellent expansion of an essay she originally published in The Atlantic (which is helpful since the book does not officially come out till September 11th, and the essay can serve as a sort of primer of what you can look forward to). Judging from the amazon.com cover image, the review copy I read was a preview of the actual cover to come, which means that, if you are a woman, reading this while riding the train to and from work, you will alienate/terrify half of your commuting brethren. A bouncer at House of Vans was checking my bag before a recent show and asked me, "What are you reading...something about killing men?!" I blushed. Even though I felt self conscious in a "No-I'm-not-reading-a-self-help-book-because-hell-hath-no-fury-or-whatever-you-might-be-thinking" This book is not about killing men, but Rosin's thesis that the current economic climate (and, in following the workplaces developing around it) is in better suited to what Rosin deems the plasticity of women: our ability to adapt, empathize, communicate and multitask are qualities that are better suited to our sex. She contrasts these qualities with "cardboard men" who, as you might guess, lack these traits and have been socialized to be unwavering in their self conception—a particularly brutal trait to posses when you build your identity around an industry and vocation that has disappeared, as is the case with many men who worked in the factories for The Russell Corporation in Alexander City, Alabama, a town she profiles in the book. Rosin is a tireless researcher, and while all of the case studies support her thesis without question (she does provide a hopeful epilogue that paints a brighter picture for one of her emasculated cardboard men), they are some case studies! One of the most interesting facts I came away with (and repeated to everyone I talked to the week after I finished the book) was that studies have shown that kids with stay-at-home dads tend to do better in schools, not because dads are better parents, but rather because the children get the added benefit of having more of their father's time and influence with an undiminished amount of attention from their mothers. In other words, working mothers will do double time to ensure that their kids are getting the attention and care they need.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner: When I was in college I took a class with Claire Messud who is probably best known for her book The Emporer's Children. It was called "Readings in Tragicomedy" and for the penultimate class her husband James Wood came in to give a lecture about Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which to this day remains one of my favorite books (and favorite lectures) of all time, while its anithero Mickey Sabbath remains one of the most despicable characters put to print. Turns out I love tragicomedy, and really enjoyed most of the books we read in the class (Italo Svevo and Thomas Bernhard in particular). I realize this is a round-about way of introducing Sheila Heti's book, but it's relevant to how I came to read Lerner's book and pit them mentally against each other (which is totally unfair). Wood gave Heti's book an underwhelming review in The New Yorker, and since Wood is frozen in my impressionable collegiate mind as a sort of demigod, I always read his reviews with an air of caution/idolatry. In any case, there's been so much hullabaloo over this book and it's tacit connections to Lena Dunham and a much espoused new girl order, I bought this book immediately after I read Michelle Dean's review in Slate, my anticipation only diminished only by the Miranda July recommendation emblazoned across the cover. :( As much as I wanted to believe that Wood was wrong and that he had unfairly given, as Dean argued in Slate a very similar book written by a man a much better review, I have to side unequivocally with the old guard here. Heti's book is funny and well observed in places, and strangely, I kept reading this book giving her the benefit of the doubt, convincing myself that a poorly drawn scene was something she was "doing self consciously and intentionally." But then I started to think, this could just be one elaborate ruse for being too scared to commit an idea fully to a page. This struck me most in a scene where Heti's friend Margaux (all the characters are sketches of Heti and her group of friends) explains how she feels smothered by Heti by recalling a scene the reader never sees in an earlier moment in the book, where Heti kills a spider they'd been too scared/timid to wash down the drain in their hotel room. She states this plainly as a very poetic metaphor, but I couldn't help but imagine what it would've been like if Heti had tried actually to write that scene. Sure it could so easily come off as hackneyed and would only work with a deft hand. I guess it's easier to make it meta and oblique, summed up in an email, dashed off and half-hearted lyricism.

Funny enough, Ben Lerner is an actual poet. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel and its protagonist, like Heti's, closely mirrors himself: a smart and schmucky (not sure if this is true about Lerner, but!) intellectual, whose crippling self consciousness is really beautifully and terrifyingly realized. It's about a young poet on a prestigious scholarship to study in Madrid, and it follows his coming to terms with feeling like a hack or, at worst, a complete fraud. That he's hiding behind a dying art because it's just easier to hold onto something that nobody really cares about anymore. Lerner's character tells despicable lies, is petty, deceitful, self absorbed and ultimately so honestly human, it makes your heart hurt a little. I even dog-eared pages in this book, I loved it so much. And I mean that unironically.

Also, speaking of navel-gazing, guess what the favorite tumblr in the FADER office is of late: rap game ann friedman

From The Collection:

What We're Reading
What We’re Reading: Amber Bravo