Mostly re-reading at the moment, and both are books “from high school:” Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Macbeth by William Shakespeare. 


Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Mostly I’m surprised by how much of this book I still remember. I first read this in 11th grade, I think, and haven’t read it again since, but I remember just about every beat and character, and I find myself admiring the same things about it, like the way Hurston was willing to slip into some gothic/magical realism moments (the “buzzards’ ritual” atop the dead mule, for example) and her command over how a character narrates vs. how she as the author narrates (“Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling.”) It’s like a sort of compassionate omniscience—she lets her characters tell their stories until she thinks they don’t have the tools to do so. 


Macbeth – William Shakespeare 

I’ll blame Denzel Washington for this one, and I look forward to seeing him play the title role in the new adaptation coming out at Christmas. 


But even if that film wasn’t coming out, I pretty much re-read Macbeth every year. If it’s not my favorite Shakespeare play it’s definitely in the top three, and I’ve read it enough and read enough about it that I find myself noticing and enjoying the odd little “artifacts” that are still locked in the text after four hundred years. What happens in the scenes that may or may not be missing? Who is the Third Murderer and why do they randomly join the two original murderers in Act 3 Scene 3? (My favorite theory is that during production someone realized it would take more than two actors to carry a dead body offstage, so they added a third murderer.) But all that’s just an extra bit of fun on top of the fact that Macbeth is always a solid, moody, twisty, violent read for the beloved spooky season.


Recently Finished: American Ground – William Langewiesche 

For the 20th anniversary of 9/11 I wanted to read an account of the catastrophe that was detailed but not melodramatic. It feels hard even to desire an account of 9/11 that isn’t melodramatic—it’s sort of just part of it all. But what I really meant was I didn’t want another tick-tock, countdown to horror; I didn’t want any more “at 8:14, the pilots stopped responding,” I didn’t want to look at any more enormous fireballs and smoke columns. Langewiesche’s book—which focuses exclusively on the effort to remove the rubble of the World Trade Center from Ground Zero and recover the remains of those who died—has all the necessary details and the necessary humanity, but approaches all of it more soberly than anything I’ve ever read. Langewiesche is perfectly comfortable reciting the horrible mechanics of what exactly happens to structures and bodies when planes crash and buildings collapse (and when ships sink, which he chronicled in The Outlaw Sea.)


For me personally, horrible things always become a little more manageable when I can understand how they work. I’m shocked that this book was published so soon after the attacks—even now we all seem to have a personal radius extending from 9/11 beyond which we will not go, but in 2002 Langeweische was digging through the rubble with firefighters, police officers and construction workers, discovering half-eaten breakfasts and abandoned subway trains under the infamous “pile.” Another shocking thing is that no one in the book is depicted as a hero—including, and in some cases especially, the first responders. Instead Langewiesche depicts everyone on the pile as people who didn’t always agree with each other, didn’t always like each other, didn’t always cooperate, didn’t always do the right thing, but who answered an unprecedented and tragic calling and somehow actually got the job done.