Oh, hello, gentle reader. I didn’t see you there. Welcome to this week’s book club, A Field Guide to Humans, where we read and study modern homo erectus in its natural — or unnatural — habitat. Humans are funny beasts, aren’t they? Look at them live, love, contemplate gender identity, and attempt to form complex social groups. Marvel as they date, find jobs, and achieve parenthood! The forces that shape humanity can be confusing, so it’s a good idea to take a look at what makes these creatures tick. Any one of these new novels is a great start.
1. A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg ($22): Our first stop on our tour of humanity is this handy taxonomic guide to the behavior of two examples of the family Suburbanus Middleclassus. A reissue of Hallberg’s first work from 2007 after his recent success with City on Fire, the novella-cum-guidebook features a thematic narrative breakdown of 63 vignettes for closer study, with illustrations and photographs for the full experience of two families in the throes of crisis.
Documentarist Hallberg writes that his guide is “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full description of the plumage of both adult and young, within a taxonomic survey of several aspects of domestic life.” The Hungates and the Harrisons both live on Long Island, and each has their own difficulties to study. The Harrison clan patriarch has died, plunging the family into crisis. Though many humans seem to mate for life, the Hungates have broken with this tendency and the parents have split up.
Both families have teenage children, a fascinating subcategory of study that might as well be its own species. The children are each trying to cope with familiar rituals that the documentarist categorizes, such as seeking comfort via mind-altering substances, creating false stories, sexual intimacy, or breaking societal rules and conventions. The short moments can be read in any order, for documentary fans who wish to choose their own adventure. Truly, this a necessary guide for anyone who may have to interact with these creatures in the future.
2. A Selfie As Big As the Ritz by Lara Williams ($18): Our next species is the proud yet insecure, 20 and 30-something angstus urbanus; in between young adulthood and middle age, they are fascinating to observe as they desperately try to make their way in life. Williams is a Pushcart Prize nominee, whose work has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, McSweeney’s, The Independent, and Best British Stories 2017. In her new widely praised collection, this documentary often goes eye-level, with second-person chapters putting the reader in the place of our subjects. Personal and confessional, the writing tells you their innermost, deepest secrets.
Your guide is filled with trenchant field observations such as: “You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn like a badge of honor. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. This marching course of spreadsheets and workflows and thin-lipped jokes in strategizing brainstorms, this is all there is and we knew all along, while you were dilly-dallying with our Chaucer, frolicking with your intertextuality, we were squirreling away the capacity to deal with this. Imagine being that lacking in idealism, you think.”
The 21 stories run the gamut from issues at work to relationship breakdown, from starting a new adventure to ending one. Whether the humans in the stories are moving forward, moving back, or moving on, their struggles are captured and made real.
3. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor ($17): Our last field guide is a study of gender dynamics, attraction, and intimacy through the eyes of homo shapeshiftus. To study these aspects of the human condition, our lead is Paul Polydoris, a shape-shifter who can change appearance and gender whenever the desire hits. A period guide that gives us the (slightly) historical context of 1993, an era of queer theory, Womyn’s music festivals, Riot Grrls, and zines, Lawlor’s novel shows Paul tending bar at the only gay club in a college town.
Paul is desperate for a feeling of connection with as many people as possible and eager to embrace an ever-changing identity to achieve those goals. “Like a shark, Paul had to keep moving. He slept only when necessary. He had business with the world, codes to crack, so many questions. Tonight, for example, Paul needed to know what f*cking was like for girls.”
In this extended metaphor about the malleability of identity, Paul tests out several hypotheses about intimacy, asking whether there is more joy in variety and newness, or whether it’s about revealing yourself to another person as fully as possible. He explores and changes cities like he explores and changes his body, trying to find the rationale behind humankind’s desire for sex and how it relates to truly understanding those strange creatures we live among (and that we are).
What books guide your life? Tag us in your next taxonomic read @BritandCo.
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