#FridayReads for 3/6

March 6, 2015 • Top Books

Every Friday, our editors share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week, a memoir from one of alternative rock’s biggest names, the secrets of influencing others, a harrowing story of World War II, and more.


Alex P: Like seemingly every other person who got through high school listening to Sonic Youth, I was traumatized by the separation of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and the subsequent dissolution of one of my favorite bands. It felt personal, in a way; long after adolescence had stripped away most of my illusions, Kim and Thurston remained a beacon of romantic hope for the young & disenchanted: a meant-to-be story the cynical could get behind, noise-rock royalty worth rooting for. In the first pages of her new memoir, Gordon acknowledges the outsized impact of the divorce on the band’s fans:

The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock-and-roll world, was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.

Much of Gordon’s memoir is like this: perceptive realizations—often anchored around her relationship with Moore—written with enviable fluency. She concedes that her stage persona can come across as “opaque or mysterious or enigmatic or even cold,” which makes this vulnerable and candid portrayal of her life all the more thrilling. Nonetheless, that enigmatic side is well-represented in Gordon’s narration—her tone is unruffled and casual, even as she describes heartbreak. As a whole, the memoir is as much an exercise in memory and reflection as one in catharsis, without being mired in the self-pity those usually evoke. Gordon definitely isn’t cold, but she is—still—damn cool.


Justin: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.” So begins Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a harrowing tour of some of the worst atrocities in human history, as related by one of Nazi Germany’s witting agents. Dr. Maximilien Aue is a man of culture, with an ear for classical music and a thoughtful, introspective disposition. Nevertheless, he finds himself recruited by and promoted through the ranks of the Nazi Security Service and deployed to the Eastern Front, where he witnesses horror after horror, from the massacres at Babi Yar, to the Siege of Stalingrad, to the Third Reich’s last desperate stand in Berlin.

Hallucinatory in its power and scope, this is not light reading. Aue is a frequently beguiling narrator: darkly charming and observant, but also quick to rationalize his involvement in the German death machine. His tale is challenging, deeply ironic, and frequently grotesque. But it’s also deeply researched history, as vast in scope as Tolstoy, and as chillingly dark as Dostoevsky. Echoes of Greek tragedies pervade. Above all, it’s an unflinching examination of the ways the State transforms individuals, even honest, intelligent, honorable people, into murderers. “[K]eep this thought in mind,” Aue tells us near the novel’s outset, ”you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins.”


Ashley: Though marketing tactics and technology have changed immensely in the 30 years since Influence originally came out, the six principles of persuasion Cialdini dissects remain relevant. We’re all aware of these typical persuasion tactics—I can convince you to do something by promising to reciprocate your kindness with a favor later; you’re more likely to do something if someone you like tells you to. What’s remarkable is how Cialdini demonstrates with case studies just how and why each principle works so effectively, frequently convincing people to do things contrary to their wishes and interests.

I can’t help reading Influence through a Social Justice Warrior lens—when Cialdini explains how studies have found that diversity in classrooms does not lead to increased understanding and compassion between people of different races (which went directly against my own experiences), it broke my little SJW heart (who knew a book about marketing could be so emotionally fraught?). But then, a page later, he explains that this is because school environments breed a culture of competition (among other things), which isn’t conducive to bridging racial tensions, and in fact exacerbates them. That’s the type of stuff I find fascinating.


Niree: “Nothing is more local and fresh and tastes better than what you grow yourself,” Jimmy Williams says in the opening pages of his cookbook-cum-memoir-cum-how-to-guide, From Seed to Skillet. And he’s right. Nothing compares to the triumph of planting seedlings and watching them sprout leaves, blossom, and bear fruit. Well, nothing compares except maybe cooking with the fruits of your labor.

With the spirit of his grandmother Eloise guiding us through the text, he offers simple techniques for getting started, like rolling seeds to a slight crack to get them to sprout faster. With beautiful photographs accompanying the text, and several pages of resources including a list for companion plants, Williams shows how anyone can grow food anywhere, be it a small pot in a windowsill or a raised bed in a yard.

After the garden is grown, the plants tended to, and the harvest complete, Williams offers his favorite produce pairings, and includes a chapter dedicated to recipes inspired by his Caribbean heritage. With classics like sweet potato biscuits, fish chowder, creamed corn, and berry cobbler, start planning your fall dinner parties, now.


Alex P (again!): In Bergman’s author’s note, she says this collection of stories was “born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.” It would be tempting to idolize them here in some kind of conciliatory effort, a token payment for an unrecognized life. Luckily, though, Bergman avoids hagiography, instead creating well-rounded portraits of complex and often difficult women, while giving their remarkable lives their due. In a telling moment from the story examining the death of Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly, the narrator pauses to reflect:

Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.

Though the overt theme here is a flirtation with fame, the true undercurrent of these 13 stories is survival. These unconventional women made their way skirting along society’s edge. Lesbians, atheists, minorities, illegitimate children, even conjoined twins—each of these unique women was marginalized in some way, for some reason. And yet, somehow they survived. And in Almost Famous Women, their stories survive still.