What We’re Reading: Hanff, Butler
Each week we bring you a sample of the books we’re reading, the films and TV shows we’re watching, and the music we’re listening to.
Jackie Tang is reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
I recently gobbled up 84 Charing Cross Road, which I picked up thinking would be a frivolous indulgence, but ended up being genuinely surprised by the charm and force of personality packed into it.
The book chronicles the faithful decades-long correspondence between the author Helene Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co, a secondhand and rare books store in London, from about 1949 to 1969. Hanff is the best kind of letter writer – witty, unexpected, at times bawdy, and the contrast between her rambunctious extroverted manner and the more straight-laced British booksellers is a delight. What’s intriguing about the book is perhaps what it leaves out – the allusion to the hardship of living under austerity in post-World War II London; the financial difficulties of being a woman trying to make it as a screenwriter in New York – they’re all hinted at in the letters, but never delved into fully. You come out of this book wanting to know more about the lives of these people.
It’s hardly an esoteric piece, having been in print since the 1960s and having been made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins, but for any book lover who’s not yet checked this one out, I highly recommend it.
Ellen Cregan is watching Killing Eve, Season 2
This week I’ve been watching the second season of Killing Eve. I’ve been holding off on watching it for a while, mostly because I loved season one so much that I didn’t think I could stand the pain of waiting for a new episode each week. At this stage, i’m about four episodes in, and I am just as obsessed with it as I thought I’d be. In this season, the cat-and-mouse relationship between ruthless assassin Villanelle and British intelligence agent Eve Polastri continues, and intensifies. On top of the fallout from season one, there’s also a new female assassin in town – one with a very different approach to murder than Villanelle. As Eve and her team close in on this new killer, Eve’s personal life continues to disintegrate, and she enters into a very fascinating period of self reflection. Season two is easily living up to the hype, and I can’t wait to see how it all ends.
Georgia Brough is reading The New Me by Halle Butler
In a windowless office, the possibility of a permanent job arises. Will it bring the new life Millie (thirty years old, permanent temp) is envisioning – one involving a gym membership, a book club, and a lot less beer and TV – finally within reach? Or will it reveal just how hollow that vision has become?
I’m not far in to Halle Butler’s new novel, The New Me, yet, but already I have laughed out loud in (somewhat guilty) recognition in several places. Yes, protagonist Millie is a misanthrope, belligerent, and teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but there’s something uncomfortably relatable about her internal monologue that will ring true for many of us. Whether it’s her (completely unspoken) battle of wills with the woman in the ridiculous pom-pom hat on the train hogging the pole, or her silent declaration that the much-younger supervisor showing her how to correctly use a paperclip (is there such a thing?) must obviously be permanently constipated, Millie’s inner voice is as witty as it is frustrating, as relatable as it is confronting. We’ve all felt like throwing a tantrum on a co-worker’s desk at one point or another.
Millie is arguably unlikeable, but her voice is handled so well by Butler that she’s an interesting character study; speaking to the worst parts of ourselves, but doing it so well that it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps it’s my recent binge of Ottessa Moshfegh influencing me, but it’s refreshing to see such complex, textured female characters in contemporary fiction. They don’t have to be likeable to be interesting or even readable. Bring it on, I say.