Funk-Busting Books

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Rivka Galchen (Photo: Sandy Tait)

As an editor, I’m lucky enough to be paid for doing what I love, but there are times when reading begins to feel like a chore, and when I lose my taste for a good story. I come home from work looking for something that will delight but not daunt a word-wearied brain, but everything I pick up feels dull or like a homework assignment.

This year, I found three methods of breaking out of that kind of funk. The first was reading short stories, since they don’t require a long attention span. Second, I discovered that reading books about other people’s editorial problems was a great way to forget my own. And, finally, books about non-verbal activities such as surfing, shepherding, or even walking made me feel as if I’d taken a vacation from the page.

The most delightful book I read this year falls into the first category. Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations (Picador, $15, 192 pp.) charmed me with its just-so-slightly off descriptions of quotidian life. Each story reimagines another famous short story, centering it on a compelling female character, instead of on a man. Nodding to Gogol, the protagonist of the collection’s titular story grows a “dorsal breast.” Another story, “The Lost Order,” tips its cap to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” telling of a daydreaming woman who argues with her nagging husband and undertakes a quixotic mission to fulfill a misplaced order for Chinese food.

While it’s fun to try to identify the original story, Galchen’s collection stands on its own even without the gimmick. Her women are self-effacing, careful, and just a tad too transparent in their attempts not to overshare. “I’m a pretty normal woman, maybe an even extremely normal woman,” one protagonist assures us before going on to list the items she saw exit her window under their own steam. “I was at home, not making spaghetti,” begins the narrator of another story, reassuring us that, no, she doesn’t comfort herself with food while unemployed.

Revealing though not confessional, each woman’s story shows her trying to make the best of a bad situation—a hopeless crush, a difficult mother-in-law, an unpleasant party—usually while doing something a bit crazy. Yet it’s all rather playful, and for every wince there’s a laugh. More often than not, there’s a flash of self-recognition, too, the kind that I first experienced as a child when I found friends in books.

Revealing though not confessional, each woman’s story shows her trying to make the best of a bad situation

In my second category of funk-busting books, Thomas Vinciguerra’s Cast of Characters (W. W. Norton, $18.95, 480 pp.) stands out. Through vivid portraits of the New Yorker’s brilliant and eccentric writers and editors, Vinciguerra chronicles the sparkling and sordid chapters in the magazine’s history from its founding through the early Cold War era. There’s romance: the story of E. B. and Katharine White’s relationship, anecdotes of James Thurber’s bizarrely antagonistic relationships with women, and poignant accounts of Wolcott Gibbs’s failed marriages. There are feuds, including not only the famous takedown of Time magazine’s house style (“Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”), but also stories of more personal quarrels. In response to Walter Winchell’s claim that magazine co-founder Harold Ross didn’t wear underwear, Ross reportedly stripped off the pair he was wearing and mailed it to him.

The real-life hijinks of Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. and Katherine White, James Thurber, and their many other famed peers delight and horrify, but the book is more than just gossip. It makes Ross’s and Gibbs’s pleasure in their work contagious and sends me back to my work eager to build something that will last.

Finally, in the category of books-about-tasks-that-employ-gross-motor-skills is Wainwright on the Pennine Way (Frances Lincoln, $25, 224 pp.), Alfred Wainwright’s 1985 illustrated guide to the 270-mile walking path from Derbyshire to the Scottish borders. It’s meant to be more a reminder of the trail’s joys for Pennine alumni than an introductory text, but it also suits well a would-be walker eager to dream of a British walking holiday.

Wainwright guides the reader past sinkholes and across moors, through villages and down into tough terrain. “Nobody has a kind word to say about Featherbed Moss.... But all bad things come to an end,” the reader is reminded, as Wainwright describes a particularly difficult bit of the path. Along the way, he comments on the manmade ugliness that spoils some views—“A scene of desolation can be beautiful; a scene of utter devastation is always ugly”—but there’s always more beauty ahead, whether in Penyghent’s limestone cliffs or along the River Swale’s banks. The process of tracing his maps and following the step-by-step descriptions quiets my brain and leaves me nearly as relaxed as if I were marching along myself.

Sometimes I need a real walk, even if it’s up Seventh Avenue, not across England, to clear my mind. For nights that are too stormy, though, or for days when I’m too lazy, I’m grateful for writing that refreshes. And who knows? I’ve yet to write book-friends for lonely children, and no billionaires have offered to fund my magazine, but I’m eyeing cheap flights to London and looking for good walking shoes.

Published in the December 1, 2017 issue: 
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Bria Sandford is a senior editor at Penguin Random House.

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