Everything Our Editors Loved in October
‘The Secret History,’ ‘Battle Royale,’ and the latest Sally Rooney novel
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In October, when we weren’t busy catching up on the latest Outside Book Club pick, editors here dove into an atmospheric campus novel, a surprisingly entertaining writing manual, and a vampire TV series perfect for spooky season. Here’s everything we loved last month.
What We Read
I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by historian Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. It was heavy material but should be required reading. The book offers an unflinchingly honest and rigorously researched account of U.S. history that highlights the ways in which white supremacy and ethnic cleansing have been central to the American experiment. I’ve learned so much from it—about how our military was founded on the genocide of Indigenous people, how tribes weren’t just displaced but systematically massacred, and more. —Abigail Barronian, associate editor
It’s hard to make an instructional book enjoyable to read, but famed author Ursula K. Le Guin does just that in Steering the Craft, an entertaining self-guided seminar on how to write narrative prose, developed out of a real writing workshop she led. Le Guin shares examples of quality prose and provides the reader with practical writing assignments, illuminating the many techniques that can elevate storytelling. So far, I’ve filled a quarter of a small notebook with my exercises, and surprisingly, it’s homework I’ve actually enjoyed. Maybe you’re like me, trying to make up for less-than-stellar grades in college courses after the fact, or you’re a curious reader interested in the work that goes into your favorite writing—either way, this short book is a great window into the methods of a master storyteller. —Kevin Johnson, editorial fellow
Last month, I read Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History. I was grateful for my ignorance of plot, topic, or even time period going into this book. So if you, like me, don’t want to even see a movie’s trailer for fear of spoilers, here’s my review: The Secret History is a near-perfect novel.
For those who want just a little more to go on, the book is about a group of friends at a university whose insulated, intellectual, and self-reinforcing worldview eventually leads them to commit horrible acts. Tartt took nearly a decade to write it, and her work shows in subtle, distinctive character development and maddeningly good pacing with impeccable foreshadowing. The chilly winter vibes are perfect for this time of year. I suggest you learn from my mistake and not read it while camped alone in the forest. —Maren Larsen, associate podcast producer
Like thousands of Sally Rooney fans, I eagerly awaited the Irish novelist’s latest release, Beautiful World, Where Are You. But this was a different book than her first two, for better and for worse. Her writing is exquisite in several sections, with dreamy descriptions and spot-on analyses of our modern culture and its quirks. And yet, numerous times I questioned whether I was reading a kind of autobiography (one of the main characters is a successful writer who harbors doubts about whether she’s cut out for her trade), and there were tired parallels to her previous novel, Normal People (for instance, Italy is a temporary setting in both books). What pleased me about her first two works were the convincing characters and their relationships, but the set of women protagonists in Beautiful World were not as endearing to me in comparison. Yet for my disappointment, I feel like I’ve gleaned more about Rooney, the person, and I like her intelligence and insight even more after all three novels. I’d still pick up anything she puts forth in the future. —Tasha Zemke, copy editor
What We Listened To
I’ve been enjoying the podcast Maintenance Phase ever since contributing editor Erin Berger recommended it in her column last year. Hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon systematically debunk many of the biggest myths in diet culture, from the idea that body mass index is an indicator of health to the dubious logic behind the keto diet. I’ve especially appreciated their recent deep dives into public figures, like former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and influencer Rachel Hollis, who’ve built their careers in part on making questionable wellness claims. The show is equal parts witty repartee and painstaking research—a winning combination. —Sophie Murguia, associate editor
What We Watched
Every time October rolls around, I find myself in an odd mental state where I desperately want to get scared, but then hate anything that actually scares me. This year I attempted to navigate that urge by finding a show with some spooky elements but no actual nightmare-inducing jump scares. I landed on What We Do In The Shadows, a TV show created by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, based on their film of the same name. The series follows four vampires through their daily lives, and it’s truly one of the most hysterical, absurd shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. The actors have great chemistry, and it’s delightful to see each of their characters develop. I cannot recommend this enough if, like me, you’re scared of everything but want to (retroactively) embrace the Halloween spirit. —Kyra Kennedy, photo editor
Everyone seems to love the hit Netflix show Squid Game, a fictional series in which adults compete in deadly children’s games for the opportunity to win a multibillion-dollar prize. And I mostly do, too. After all, what’s not to like about an expertly made, utterly suspenseful commentary on the ills of capitalism? But as I sat there boosting Netflix’s stock price along with 142 million or so of my fellow bingers, I couldn’t help but feel like a record store hipster harrumphing at its overnight success. Because for years, I’ve been trying to get people to watch Battle Royale, a cult classic Japanese film that shares many of Squid Game’s dystopian themes but hasn’t achieved the same degree of ubiquity.
Battle Royale, adapted from the Koushun Takami book of the same name, came out in 2000, though it wasn’t actually released in the United States or Canada until much later. Like Squid Game, Battle Royale features a cast of characters unwittingly thrust into a fight for their lives, and, you guessed it, they’re fighting each other. One key differentiator is the age of the contestants; in Battle Royale, they’re junior high schoolers. For a long time, I’ve wondered what it is about Battle Royale that keeps me coming back (I have an actual DVD I dust off every year or so). The best answer I have come up with is that it doesn’t try to do or be too much. It’s also a social commentary, but because it has 113 minutes to tell a story rather than Squid Game’s nine episodes, it’s naturally smaller in scope. Which is to say that the subtext is there, but it’s also good with popcorn. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find that DVD. —Tyler Dunn, audience development editor