Whatcha Reading, Martin McClellan?

Every week we ask an interesting figure what they're digging into. Have ideas who we should reach out to? Let it fly: info@seattlereviewofbooks.com. Want to read more? Check out the archives.

Martin McClellan is the co-founder of this site, and when we started this column, we thought featuring the people who work on the site once in a blue moon might be a nice idea (see what associate editor Dawn McCarra Bass was reading a few months ago). You already know mostly what we read by reading our reviews, but in particular Martin (who is writing this in third person, uncomfortably), reviews much less frequently than Paul (although more frequently than Dawn), so there are many books he doesn't get a chance to talk about.

What are you reading now?

I'm in the middle of Patrick deWitt's upcoming French Exit. I really liked The Sisters Brothers, and deWitt is the kind of writer who can pull off stories from radically different genres with what seems like little effort. I can't even imagine how much work that takes.

I'm also listening to the audiobook of Wolf Hall. I wanted to watch the miniseries, but knowing how marvelous a writer Hilary Mantel is, I didn't want to deny myself the pleasure of her prose and storytelling. But, I was feeling a little bummed that I couldn't watch along while I read, until I remembered that, duh, this is the British Reformation and, duh, I know the story pretty well. When I realized that, I've been gleefully watching episodes as I listen, more-or-less in parallel (not everything happens in the same order in both mediums). I just hope everything turns out okay for that dynamic, engaging Boleyn woman.

What did you read last?

I just finished reading Dave Eggers' The Lifters to my son, and I absolutely love this book. The last book we read together was John August's Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, and although we both enjoyed it, I think my son liked it a lot more than I did. For me, August (who I admire so much, and have learned so much from, in his blogging and giving back to the screenwriting community on his podcast Scriptnotes) laid his book out sensibly, and with some interesting bits, but the overall feel was like a soup you just made, where the flavors haven't meshed yet.

Eggers, in contrast, lives in his sentences. They're lovely, and his turn of phrase is disarmingly good and charming — which is a joy, since you can sometimes feel him appropriately holding back his more whimsical nature in his non-fiction, but also even in a book like The Circle. It's always seemed that he wanted to deliberately move out of the looming shadow of the deep ironic humor of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genious by paring his craft down to a simple, reliable kit of tools. Which is not to say his work suffers for it — I generally always come away from an Eggers read feeling better off than when I started.

But The Lifters is something special. He has fun with it, and it shows in the language. There is whimsy and irony, and some pratfalls so well played you can hear the snare hit when you turn the page. That's all nice, but The Lifters doesn't succeed because of that. It succeeds because it's got a message embedded in a slowly-revealed heart-rending metaphor, and the message is a really good one that the story illustrates, but doesn't belabor or become beholden to. I would recommend it as a read, even for non-middle-grade readers. It's the most fun I've had reading a book in years.

I think August he'll need to write a few more novels before they come alive in your hands. Since this is the first in an Arlo Finch series, perhaps he will. In the meantime, The Lifters is self contained (no setup for an obvious sequel), and will remind you more of the kind of mid-century books for kids that were such a joy to read, and were obviously written by brilliant writers who were palpably enjoying themselves so much when they wrote that their enthusiasm infects the page even when the story turns sad.

What are you reading next?

I know that you, reader, have an enviable to-read pile. This is the curse of those who love to read. But, have you seen our Mail Call? The to-read pile of a person involved with a review site is towering, which goes to show optimism is never tied to any sense of realism. But, there are a few standouts that have come in the mail I'm very interested in, and also I picked up some titles at local Indy bookstores recently.

I'm really excited to get to Rachel Kushner's new book The Mars Room. I enjoyed Telex from Cuba, but I absolutely adored The Flamethrowers, with its deep interrogation of being a woman inside of men's spaces, and a protagonist fighting so hard to claim her identity and make her mark. It's one of those books that flew into me hard and left wing prints on my chest, although what I'm left with are fluttering impressions more than a comprehensive memory of the plot points. I'd be into revisiting that as well, but dammit, adding books I've already read back on the to-read pile feels like cheating myself out of a totally new book.

I went and saw Molly Crapapple at the Elliott Bay Book Company, and her co-author Marwan Hisham Skyped in from Turkey. Their book Brothers of the Gun is a biographical telling of Hisham's witnessing ISIS taking over his town in Syria, and clandestinely reporting on them. The talk was fascinating, and the book seems so compelling — they collaborated both on the text, and the images, which Crabapple drew, and Hisham art directed (eighty-two of them, the same amount as Goya's The Disasters of War). I'm reserving this when my heart can take it.

Charles Johnson's The Way of the Writer is on my stack. I have a weakness for writing inspiration or instruction books, especially ones from great writers. The format is the best kind of self-help, married to the kind of view into a writers mind and process that, because of the solitary nature of writing, is rarely granted. I love the intimacy of that glimpse on how another mind approaches writing, and Johnson's writing is so clear and bright, and his history of instruction and teaching so long, that I'm sure this one will be a standout on my little bookcase of like titles.

And finally, our Reading Through It book club is reading Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, so I'll definitely finish that one by the 5th of July, when we meet at Third Place Books in Seward Park. This book is supposed to be very compelling, and the kind of thing you'll swallow in a few big gulps. If you've read it, or it's on your list, come join us in July for our discussion — it's a friendly group, and we always have a lively talk.