I was a bit under the weather this weekend and wasn’t up to writing a new edition. So, I’m featuring a few of my favorite, underrated gems from the What To Read If archives.
I’ll be back next week.
And, now, what to read if…
You Still Know All the Words to “My Heart Will Go On”
Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
This is one of the weirdest books I have read in years. At multiple points, I had to put it down and stop and think, “Is this real?” And the answer is yes, it is very real, or as real as a memoir can be.
In Sounds Like Titanic, Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman describes her time “playing” violin in a fake orchestra directed by a nutty unnamed composer. At the beginning of each performance, a member of the orchestra would stealthily hit play on a CD of the composer’s music, and the musicians would spend the concert pretending to play their instruments. Adding to the absurdity, the orchestra’s repertoire sounded nearly identical to “Titanic’s” soundtrack. I’ve listened to the composer’s music and the “Titanic” soundtrack back to back and don’t know how the composer didn’t get sued. They’re remarkably similar.
Reading it, at times, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation, while at other moments, I ached for Jessica as she struggled to find a way out of her career as a fake violinist.
Chiccehitto Hindman’s memoir combines a coming-of-age-story with reflections on post-9/11 America and the nature of truth. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does, beautifully. It’s a book I find myself thinking about regularly and begging people to read, so I have someone to discuss it with. So, if you do read it, please let me know?
You’re Looking for a Moody, Atmospheric Mystery
A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh
A few of you have reached out recently looking for a creepy thriller with a distinct setting. (Reminder: if you email me, I will send you personalized recommendations.) Each and every time, I’ve suggested A Madness of Sunshine, a mystery set in Golden Cove, a small town on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast.
The book opens with the line, “She returned home two hundred and seventeen days after burying her husband while his pregnant mistress sobbed so hard she made herself sick.”
It’s a compelling first sentence that sets the tone for the rest of the book. The “she” in question is Anahera Rawiri, a recently-widowed classical pianist returning to her tiny, claustrophobic hometown. Shortly after Anahera settles into her isolated cabin, a teenage girl disappears, in a case that echoes one from Anahera’s childhood. She teams up with Will, a new-in-town police officer, to investigate the case.
As I write this, I’m realizing A Madness of Sunshine sounds like a retread of many thrillers (suffocating small town, outsider detective, a woman with a mysterious past returning home under inauspicious circumstances and a missing teenage girl), but it never feels like a cliché. Rather, it shows just how gripping those tropes can be in the hands of an author as talented as Singh.
The Latest Twitter Pile-on Makes You Squeamish
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
There’s a joke about Twitter: There’s a main character on the social media site each day. The goal is to not become the main character.
Jon Ronson, a self-described “humorous journalist,” spent three years interviewing people who had become “main characters,” working to understand what the experience, and its aftermath, was like. He talks with Justine Sacco, who infamously tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (Sacco argues her tweet was intended to mock Americans) and hikes with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes. In between recounting their conversations, he documents the history of public shaming as a punishment.
Ronson argues that these events aren’t just bad for the shamed, but for the shamers, writing, “destroys souls, brutalizing everyone, the onlookers included.” Published in 2016, years before the phrase “cancel culture” came to dominate our conversations, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a prescient book and one I often find myself reflecting on (most recently during the Bad Art Friend discourse). Ronson narrates the audiobook, drawing on his experience developing stories for This American Life, imbuing it with humor and empathy for those who have survived shamings.
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I got a big kick out of "Sounds Like Titanic." As a memoirist myself, I am in awe of memoirs that have an especially punchy way in to their story, and with humor--Hindman did it!