What We’re Reading: Summer Edition

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Laura Hutson, Arts Editor
The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, by Don Thompson
Confession time: I sometimes get really fucking sick of the art world. Lately I’ve been treating it by spending time with underexposed artists whose work I really admire, taking trips to marginal art locales, and giving myself an extended break from New York City. That last one was reinforced by this book, which is an economist’s examination of the contemporary art market. In it, Thompson explains that branding works in the art world just like it does everywhere else. Its focus is largely on Damien Hirst (of aforementioned stuffed-shark fame), and it’s an invaluable perspective that both validates and undermines the high cost of some art — a perspective that’s especially relevant given the recent $120 million purchase of Munch’s “The Scream.”

The Unwritten, Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
If the Sandman series took its magical qualities from literature instead of dreams, it would probably end up looking a lot like Unwritten. Imagine a world where a Harry Potter-like character named Tommy Taylor was a real-life person whose father wrote him into fantasy novels, sort of like A.A. Milne wrote about Christopher Robin in Winnie-the-Pooh. But then, as a grown-up, Tommy discovers that his father may have been trying to communicate something mysterious and totally real to him through his literature. It’s a captivating premise for any story, but especially for the immersive, escapist world that graphic novels can create when they’re really good. And judging from the first installment, this one is.

Steve Haruch, Culture Editor
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
I got an advance galley of this novel (due out in November and set in rural Tennessee), and while I'm not very far into it, the first chapter alone is thus far a clinic in storytelling. We know what's going to happen — Dellarobia Turnbow is going to betray her husband — but the layers of detail, stacked patiently and vividly, make the inevitable toppling of this life that much more excruciating to anticipate as the narration zooms in and out from Turnbow's hike toward a meeting place in the woods and her wider life. It helps when you can write sentences like this: "A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and it is one part rapture."

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Randy Fox, Freelancer
Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
I already had plans to re-visit Bradbury’s tale of Mid-American Zen this summer — his death on June 5 merely moved it the top. While many refer to this patchwork novel of one summer in the life of a 12-year-old boy as a work of pure nostalgia, I hesitate to do so, because the Green Town, Ill., of 1928 that Bradbury creates is as fantastic in its way as his visions of Mars or any other future landscape. While perhaps not his greatest work, it certainly is his most personal and the more pure expression of the soul of his writing.

Incident at Exeter: The Story of Unidentified Flying Objects Over America Today, by John G. Fuller
I confess, I love reading UFO books, for many of the same reasons that I love professional wrestling — it’s the closest thing America has to its own modern mythology, the field is full of kooks, eccentrics, bullshit artists and genuine characters, and every so often something happens that is just too weird to be anything but the truth. This classic from 1966 details some really strange happenings that went down in the town of Exeter, N.H., and were the inspiration for the classic “drag racing” UFOs sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Rev up the saucer, boys!

Surf Beat: Rock 'n' Roll's Forgotten Revolution, by Kent Crowley
Crowley writes of the birth of surf music with a sense of the epic that would seem to apply more to a history of the beaches of Normandy rather than Malibu, but that just makes a fascinating tale all the more engaging. He demonstrates how the disparate elements of the L.A. music scene were fused into a uniquely Southern Californian music that influenced the sound of rock guitarists for decades.

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Lance Conzett, Freelancer
Over the Anvil We Stretch, Anis Mojgani

I'm an enormous fan of erstwhile Spring Hill Spider Partier Derrick Brown's Write Bloody Publishing, a poetry publisher that once called Murfreesboro home. Write Bloody mostly focuses its efforts on performance poets, which can be something of a mixed bag when it comes to the actual written word, but I've had good luck with the publisher's core group of poets — namely Brown, Buddy Wakefield and Anis Mojgani. Over the Anvil We Stretch is Mojgani's first collection, and man is it great. Warm and emotional without being Garrison Keillor-schmaltzy, Mojgani's poems hit me in the exact right spot — especially “Shake the Dust,” his most recognizable piece.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon

I bought this more than a year ago for a book club I never attended (I was never very good with homework). I made it about 100 pages in before getting caught up in something else, but I've vowed to actually finish it this time. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon envisions an alternative history where Israel has collapsed and Jewish refugees have settled in remote Alaska. But, more than that, it's a detective novel, dripping with noir affectations and paced like a good Humphrey Bogart movie. I admire Chabon's ability to build a world (and love, love, loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and that absolutely comes through in this novel.

Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, Bakari Kitwana

I picked this up on a whim a while back and am just now getting around to it. Kitwana presents an interesting premise, but it's more of a collection of sociological studies conducted by the author than a narrative dissection of why suburban white kids (yo) are into hip-hop. Still interesting, but I think people who pick it up for its title will probably be disappointed. Fortunately, this sort of thing is basically my entire wheelhouse, so I'm more or less satisfied with the discussions of race relations held therein.

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Ashley Spurgeon, Freelancer
Nineteenth Century Short Stories by Women, edited by Harriet Devine Jump
I held on to this anthology from my undergraduate days, and like to bust it out every few years for a re-read. There are a couple of stories by literary superstars (Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley), but most are from relatively unknown authors writing throughout the century in different genres: not so much for a high-minded need to create Art, but because they needed the cash. My favorite story presented is Ella D’arcy’s “The Pleasure-Pilgrim,” a super-weird drama starring, essentially, a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill
I’ve got a thing for the 19th century, if you can’t tell. This is a dual biography of Victoria and Albert, starting with their childhoods and ending with — well, I’m halfway through and just got to The Great Exhibition, so (spoiler alert!) Albert’s got another decade, and I guess the final third will cover the world’s most dedicated widow. Victoria comes across as more fun and relatable than she’s usually portrayed, and Albert seems, uh, German.

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Joe Nolan, Freelancer
Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels by Barry Gifford
David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart was adapted from the novel by Barry Gifford. Although Lynch added much of the Palme d'Or-winning movie's literally flaming intensity — along with its memorable nods to The Wizard of Oz — the core story and the characters are lifted right off of the pages of Gifford's graphic, Southern Gothic noir about the reckless love between Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune. If you dig the film, you'll definitely like the book. And this 2010 anthology is recommended for readers who want to know what happened after Nicolas Cage sang “Love Me Tender” to Laura Dern. Gifford tells his tales in spare snapshots of gestures and dialogue that is shot-through with bullet blasts — literally — of action. My favorite title for any piece in the collection is "Bad Day for the Leopard Man." Who wouldn’t want to read that?

The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, by Tom Farley and Tanner Colby
The title of this oral biography references the SNL alum's famous skit where he hosted his own show, and ended up being dumbstruck and overwhelmed during interviews with celebrities like actor Jeff Daniels and, most memorably, Sir Paul McCartney. Throughout the book, friends, family and fellow comedians point to the comic's persona in that skit as the sweet, insecure, generous, self-effacing guy that Farley actually was. Of course, he was also a gifted and troubled comedian and actor whose battles with food, booze and chemicals lead to his speedball overdose in 1997. The oral-bio format finds colleagues like Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade and Dan Aykroyd commenting on Farley and his work, and it’s a must for both SNL loyalists and students of comedy. Of course, there's no happy ending here, but it’s filled with insights and laughs along the way, and one is left to wonder over the David Mamet/Chris Farley Fatty Arbuckle project that never was.

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons, edited by Russ Kick
The first time I met up with Russ Kick to discuss a possible interview with the Scene, he brought along an early black-and-white galley of his latest project The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. The art was striking, and the panoramic vision of world literature that Kick brought to the book was immediately apparent. A few weeks later he showed me the final color version, and I understood why School Library Journal had called the book “all diamond, no rough.” Kick and I talked the hell out of this book over several cups of coffee at Portland Brew one Sunday afternoon. Read my interview to find out more about Kick's Nashville connections and the contributions by Nashville artists to the first volume of this massive, ground-breaking trilogy.

The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser
On March 18, 1990, two men pretending to be police officers convinced a night watchman at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to buzz them in after hours. Several tense moments and a dozen masterpieces later, the largest art heist in history was, well, history. Luckily for Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the Wold's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, the robbers left behind both a whodunit and a whereisit. The caper itself was no Brinks-style job. In fact, the book's various experts suggest that the Gardner was specifically chosen because of its loot-to-security ratio. Here, the maze really begins with the question of, “What happened next?” Boser picks up the threads of the mystery left behind by an eccentric, brilliant and charismatic art detective who died just when he believed he was about to break the case.

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Elizabeth Jones, Art Director
Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
OK, I read it. What's more, I couldn't put it down. Knowing it started out as Twilight fan fiction, I knew it'd be laughably bad and super sexy. I can't be the only person who spent drunken nights dramatically reading fan fiction in their dorm room, giggling at the absurdity. For those that have escaped the frenzy, the plot goes something like this: recent college grad, a virgin, meets hot bazillionaire. He has a troubled past, is in to some kinky shit, and she's totally in love with him. Can he change? Will he give her what she wants? STAY TUNED! For three long books!

Fifty Shades of Grey is poorly written and the main character is irritating, not to mention mulls over the same feelings time and time again. She says "oh my" LIKE A MILLION TIMES. And she refers to her vagina as her "sex." If I was friends with this girl, I'd punch her in the face. Actually, I would never be friends with this girl.

All that and I couldn't look away. It's the equivalent of Real Housewives of New Jersey in a pornographic book form. It's a more scandalous True Blood. It's porn, people. And I'm the loser that was so wrapped up in the story (NOT THE PORN! About midway through the second book the sex starts to get old) that I immediately read the second and third books. $30 went to this trash. Would I recommend it? No. Do I regret reading it? Not really. Do I recommend reading it in public, for numerous reasons? Absolutely not.

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Amanda Haggard, Editorial Intern
War, by Sebastian Junger
War has been acclaimed for its ability to bring together several sides of the political arena, and I’m living proof that you can be adamantly against war and still benefit from reading about it. Junger and his filming partner, Tim Hetherington, took a trip to the Korengal Valley, which is one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan, to tell the story of a group of soldiers stationed at a base called Restrepo named for a fallen comrade. The story in was also a documentary called Restrepo, which I saw before I read the book. Generally, while I love nonfiction, I’ve steered away from books that are centered in combat or violence. In fact, I often cry during battle scenes and boxing matches in movies. Don’t judge me; violence is more upsetting than some sappy comedic romance. Nonetheless, reading War has changed the scope in which I see the world of nonfiction literature. I often have to put it down because of its graphic nature, but Junger’s purpose for this book is enough to keep me turning the despair-filled pages. When Junger came to MTSU campus in March, he explained that his goal in writing War was to bring an understanding of what it was really like to be a soldier without dragging the film and book through the political side of war. His raw and touching accounts of the men on base will bring you to tears and remind you that war is about more than news headlines.

Sex and Sunsets, by Tim Sandlin
A friend of mine nearly thrust this book into my purse when I told her I hadn’t heard of Tim Sandlin. His musings are reminiscent of a less trippy Jack Kerouac with an added dose of narcissism, and it was written in the year of my birth. Score! Sandlin outlines a week in the life of Kelly Palamino, a dishwasher in Jackson Hole who lost his wife to his best friend and begins to hear voices in running water. They’re not always voices, however — sometimes he hears waterfalls playing Beethoven and faucets reciting Sylvia Plath. Amid his madness, he falls wildly in love with a young bride named Colette Hart, and the book catalogs his attempt to steal her from her newlywed husband. His romantic endeavors begin with a hang-gliding mission down into his love interest’s family ranch. A second book, Western Swing, picks up where Sex and Sunsets left off, and if it’s anything like the first, I’ll be enthralled all the way through.

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