Pandora’s Music Box

In 2015, when my friends were curating Spotify playlists to listen to on their smartphones, I still listened to CDs and the same three Pandora stations I created when I registered in 2009 and could only seed channels with musical concepts. One of my stations was exclusively for classical and modernist instrumentals–study music. One featured the torch songs of the blues and jazz singers I listened to growing up. The third station was seeded with everything I loved from the radio: trip hop from the 90s; melancholy folk tunes; nearly everything retrospectively labeled “indie” from the early aughts; performative concept albums by the kind of musicians who give concerts in costume. The station was called “Eclectic” and despite its mismatched medley of genres, it never played a song I didn’t like.

Also in 2015, when my friends were falling in love and getting promotions, I quit my full-time job to finish a graduate degree. I picked up two part-time jobs clerking in small niche shops where I could write and revise when there were no customers in the store. One was an upscale grocery store that opened in a fashionable neighborhood, down the street from a vintage furniture store and a bar with kombucha on tap. The owners dropped off a wireless speaker and charged me with choosing a Pandora station on the same tablet I used to tally up single-source chocolate and raw milk. On my first day alone in the shop, I browsed the pre-made stations and saw one called Hipster Cocktail Party. That sounds about right, I thought–admittedly with a hint of contempt. A self-consciously trendy station for a self-consciously trendy shop.

The joke is on me: after a pleasant hour of listening, I realized that all of the tracks playing on Hipster Cocktail Party sounded familiar. The playlist was nearly identical to Eclectic.

Pandora’s music platform uses the Music Genome Project, which aims to identify a song’s genes–not only genre but also instrumentation, major or minor key, and many other characteristics. When you create a station from your own seeds by adding artists or songs that you like, the platform analyzes the attributes of your selections and serves up songs that share some similarities. You can get a glimpse into this algorithm by selecting “Why this song?” from a menu attached to each track.

My Eclectic station is now ten years old and I’ve moved on in many ways–got rid of my 2015 flip phone, for example, and got another job. But I still tell this story now and then, perhaps to poke fun at my technological and musical naivete, or perhaps to make light of the invisible math that tracks and influences taste for us all. In the telling, I start to wonder: what attributes are shared by the music classified as “hipster” and the music selected for my pleasure by the unseen, unseeing algorithm? For curiosity’s sake I played a few tracks on each station and noted of the four or five attributes assigned to each–a miniscule sample size, given the hundreds of identified “genes” and thousands of tracks available, but enough to reflect on what makes my music “mine” in any appreciable way.


Devon Sproule, ”Plea for a Good Night’s Rest”

  • major key tonality
  • folk roots
  • extensive vamping
  • acoustic sonority

I had to look up “vamping”: my first thought was of the Old Hollywood vamps, women in furs lounging on pianos, which is not at all the tone. Devon Sproule sings with seemingly guileless sweetness of her friends and loves and home in Virginia; her songs are made for strumming around a fire or outside on a soft summer night.

Portishead, “Mysterons”

  • tonal harmonies
  • use of electric pianos
  • unsyncopated ensemble rhythms
  • trippy soundscapes
  • thin orchestration

I’m not sure that thin orchestration is a technical term in musicology but it is the perfect word for Portishead’s tight, restrained instrumentation, which always sounds to me like it is both muffled in closet and drawn out into a tense wire.

Feist, “How My Heart Behaves”

  • mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation
  • mellow rock instrumentation
  • major key tonality
  • acoustic rhythm piano

I wonder what it was at the turn of the century that turned so much of the new music mellow. Even in a major key, the soft smooth vocals of Feist sound mournful, as though she sings an elegy for something wished for but unreachable.

Hipster Cocktail Party

Orsten, “Flèche D’or”

  • thin orchestration
  • the use of chordal patterning
  • mellow sounds
  • layered electric guitar riffs
  • jazz influences

If I were the music geneticist, I might have included the prominent piano melody which takes the place of vocalization; the only human sound is wordless crooning layered into the background.

The Lumineers, “Angela”

  • major key tonality
  • folk influences
  • acoustic sonority
  • acoustic rhythm piano

To my mind, nothing exemplifies the “Hipster” in a Hipster Cocktail Party playlist like The Lumineers. Like the raw but homogenized milk my shop sold in returnable glass jugs, the acoustic instrumentation and balladic storytelling offers an appealing vintage aesthetic smoothed down for wider consumption. It works; I know the words, I sing along.

Portishead, “Glory Box”

  • repetitive melodic phrasing
  • prominent synth drums
  • minor key tonality
  • hip-hop influences
  • extensive vamping

As if to illustrate the common ground between playlists: nothing sounds like Portishead, except that everything sort of does.

What I learn from this exercise is that the technical terms don’t really describe what appeals to me about a song–what makes me want to hear it again, to learn it and participate in it–but the musical attributes listed above can, to a certain extent, measure and predict my listening habits. For example: I listen to Hipster Cocktail Party in my own home now, because it introduces me to music more recently made than my old Eclectic station usually shuffles up. It took me five years or more to cultivate a playlist that could easily be mimicked and ultimately replaced by a machine algorithm.

I have the sense that, once again, the joke is on me. Naive, once again, to imagine myself in the role of curator or elector of my own aesthetic pleasure. But Pandora’s box famously catches one hope under its lid, and I have to imagine that I must be more than the amalgamation of my personal tastes, and there is still some animating force of the mind that cannot be measured and monetized.

This post was created to fulfill a writing course assignment. 

Reading Roundup: October 2019

The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith. My free First Read of the previous month. This book opens unconventionally in a swamp, with our heroine a literal toad who eats bugs and sheds her skin. I buckled up for a wild ride at that point, but the story settles into a conventional enough historical romance after that: a woman who bucks convention, a man who lives by it, an ice queen rival, a quaint French village and a little medieval torture thrown in at the end. Perhaps because I was already buckled in, I ate up this story like its protagonists eat up the magical French pastries that predict who they’ll fall in love with. I also appreciated the conceit of magical powers being like cultivating and fermenting wine.

A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle (whose fantasy fiction I enjoy) and John Joseph Adams.  This collection is the sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative authors’ answer to A People’s History of the United States. What will out nation look like in the future? it asks. The answer is bleaker than I’d hoped, but these are sharp and incisive stories that give us heroes and rebels as well as dystopian states and violent demographic homogenization. There are stories by authors I’ve read or intended to read (Charlie Jane Anders, Lesley Nneka Arimah, N. K. Jemisin, Daniel José Older, for just a few examples) as well as some by new-to-me authors, but there is not one single story here that failed to move or shake me. It’s a lot to take in, cover to cover–maybe I’d recommend sampling these stories one or two at a time between reading other books. On the other hand, I didn’t want to stop reading.

Believe Me by Eddie Izzard. Surprise! Eddie Izzard wrote an autobiography. It sounds a lot like his standup! A little bit of it actually comes from his standup, and when I encountered these it felt like meeting an old friend.
I’m not a great lover of autobiography, so I admittedly read the sections on childhood and family with a very light touch. But I appreciated the opportunity to read about the performer’s gender and sexuality in his own words. Dressed to Kill was enormously important to me as a teen and college student: we all watched him stride around onstage in makeup and heels, joking that he is “an executive transvestite,” and his seemingly easy, fluid relationship with gender was aspirational. But in those days we didn’t know the word genderfluid. We had the word androgynous–a complimentary term for grunge girls with boyish bodies and boys who wore a bit of eyeliner. We had not heard of nonbinary, and transsexual mainly meant Dr. Frankenfurter, although Rocky Horror’s campy, sexualized transfeminity didn’t seem like the right word for what Eddie Izzard was doing, or for us either. He talks a little about that–having a deep, lasting sense of his own gender but not having a word for it; coming out thirty years ago as a transvestite, which is a word that we don’t really use anymore. Someone asked me if I would recommend the book, and I equivocated–but it certainly has given me a lot to reflect on. And I was thrilled to learn that Eddie Izzard’s first performance in America was in the parking lot of Bosco’s in Memphis, a place I’ve brunched on many a Sunday while very likely doing the occasional Eddie Izzard impersonation with my college pals.

I have been taking creative writing classes online, and I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t mention some of the short readings I’ve really enjoyed in the first fall term. We read part of Wendy Travino’s “Popular Culture and Cruel Work,” which explored some ideas about popular culture, relationships, and politics that also trouble me; here is an example. Although some of the links are broken, Hanif Abdurraqib posts many of his poems and essays online; I love the way he weaves his own experiences as an individual and a consumer into his very smart analysis of music and other cultural artifacts; a great example of this is his deeply respectful reflection on Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Ryan Eckes wrote a series of prose poems reflecting on public transit routes (or spurs) that were planned but never built in Philadelphia, but also on cities in general and what it means to be a part of one; here are two. The second fall term is just starting up, but next week we are reading Karen Russell’s “Reeling for Empire” and I cannot wait to read it again and talk about it.

Currently Reading

Inland by Téa Obreht. Was this selection inspired, in part, by the Barack Obama’s summer reading list? Maybe. But it’s a captivating read so far. I feel most at home in the chapters narrated by Nora, a woman trying to eke out a living on a parched claim in the Territory of Arizona; her voice is smart, writerly, and wry, even preoccupied as she is with water and waging a flame war in the local newspaper. The chapters narrated by Lurie include passages I have to read more than once; as he moves from town to town in the early American territories, his attention jumps between potential predators and prey, and between the living and dead as well. Between Lurie’s ghosts and the eerieness of the great unsettled wilderness, it’s a spooky book–but wonderfully rich with concrete detail.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I love a good quadrant, and this is a very good quadrant: The Literary Stunt Index.

I will miss Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, although I am happy it got a chance to play out its arc and end on its own terms. It helps to read these affectionate, thoughtful essays at Public Books on what made this very unusual show work.

My favorite parts of the new Jenny Slate comedy special were all about the nanas, and this New Yorker article about the clothing and style moments in the show helped me understand why.

I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which has absolutely no chill, and I loved this thread of someone discovering it for the first time:

I am always a little shy about talking about mental health, but I posted to my food blog about an interaction I had with a therapy over a cup of tea which led me to a realization about one of my negative thought patterns, so that’s there if you want to read it.

Failure Landscape

There’s a story I sometimes tell about myself (or tell on myself, perhaps).

I minored in art as an undergraduate. The long studio hours tried my patience, but I craved the repetitive tactile sensations of building or painting. In my first sculpture class, the instructor provided basic safety instructions for all the tools and machines and then stepped back to let us experiment. He was a graduate of one of the Southern California art schools that cultivated the danger aesthetic in performance art–students trying to breathe water and shoot one another in the arm and all that–and he wasn’t overly concerned with teaching technique. I started out making small, contained, even cute assemblages. I favored materials I could thrift or trash-pick–broken glass, scrap wood–and I tended to build around easy college-level themes, like heartache and loneliness. I made steady Bs with this work, which was slightly demoralizing, but my GPA wasn’t truly in danger and I did love keeping my hands busy in the noisy studio.

Eventually it would be my turn to present a sculpture in workshop, and during the week leading up to it, I was in a panic. I’d started a number of projects but lacked the skill or materials to see them through. I’d thrifted fistfuls of steak knives which I intended to solder onto the wings of a wireframe bird I made, but I was too anxious to operate the welding torch and it turns out that cheap knives are not really made of the right stuff for welding. I had also thrifted a novelty coffee cup and a single-mug hot plate which I intended to wire up into some kind of college-level commentary on office work (coffee, amirite? Mondays?), but I couldn’t visualize the finished object. I smashed up some bottles and carefully layered the curved shards of glass into the shape of a rose, which was highly successful–my relatives still display the roses I made for them out of delicately-hued glass vases later that year–but I had already turned in a broken-glass project earlier in the term, so I needed a new medium. At the final hour, I picked up a slab of wax and began hacking a face out of it with the studio carving tools, but ended up carving up my own hands rather badly instead. Then it was time to bandage up and go to workshop.

When it was my turn, I arranged all my little unfinished pieces onto a board and called it “Failure Landscape.” I talked about some of the tools I used and the processes I’d followed. As I talked, I gestured. Some of my bandages came loose; by the time I finished my presentation, I had rivulets of blood running down my arm.

I got an A.

I tell this story to joke about my flightiness: plans abandoned, dozens of unfinished drafts in both of my blogs, the painting class I enrolled in and then dropped in graduate school. What do you expect, the story goes, when you get rewarded for turning in an incomplete? When all your half-baked ideas are so special they become art? Sometimes the story is about bleeding for your art, and then I do an image search for Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) to illustrate the point.

I see now that this is a little unkind to myself as well as to my sculpture instructor. I clearly was in a panic at the idea of turning in a work-in-progress. As for the instructor, perhaps it’s more fair to say that “Failure Landscape” is the first time he saw me learn something I didn’t already know, start a project without already envisioning how it would end.


I’ve been thinking about my failure landscape often this fall. I am enrolled in one of the online classes offered by the university where I work: creative writing, for the first time since college. In some ways, the class assignments remind me of the anarchy of the sculpture studio: we don’t talk much about technique in the way I understand it, and our assignments can go in any direction although we are meant to engage with the themes of the weekly readings. The readings remind me of books I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with friends, so I write down little anecdotes of my daily life with pleasure. When we had a longer assignment, I divided my pages up into short contained passages. You’ve seen me do it here: three stories about grief, three stories about grad school, three stories about coincidences, and so on. What can I say–I like compartments. I like sets of three.

The creative writing instructor asked me to consider a revision exercise: open a new document, paste the first paragraph of the first passage into it, then the first paragraph of the second passage, and so on. Then paste the second paragraph of the first passage, the second paragraph of the second passage, and so on. Trust that your voice will still be there, he said. Trust that the meanings you made will still be in the text.

I did try it. I did like it. When my paragraphs fell in a different order, I was still telling the stories I meant to tell but they seemed bigger, somehow. Internally, I read them in the voice I use for poetry. Then I felt that I wanted bigger line breaks between some of the passages–I wanted it to be clear that the tone was meant to shift, the scene was meant to change. But when I added the blank space between passages, all the copy above and below it looked like it belonged to a complete story or vignette, when that wasn’t always the case. I was trying to put my writing into containers again.

That’s not inherently bad or wrong–it’s just that I don’t think I understood why I was doing it until I tried so intentionally to mix it up, make a bit of a mess, leave some seams showing. I can appreciate the exercise of it, the temporary discomfort as a means to becoming more knowledgable and confident in my limits as well as my strengths.

Reading Roundup: September 2019

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. The short stories in this book are fascinated with how technology affects the human condition–but technology is very broadly defined, from sci-fi innovations (such as a device that records your memories as video) to the ancient technology of writing. I was delighted with the opening story, which–like my favorites in the author’s previous collection–is set in a richly imagined past rather than a possible future; the spareness of the author’s prose lends such settings a fairytale-like feel. The same style in more futuristic settings can seem clinical–for example, the title story comes across this way, but when the detached narrator burst into a stunningly poetic explication of its themes, I knew I had to keep reading. These stories have stayed with me, especially the ones about time travel and memory.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. An elegant, readable novel following a brilliant mathematician whose quest to solve a difficult math problem as well as her own mysterious family history lead her to postwar Germany. The author is a mathematician herself, and she draws from real-world problems to inspire and mystify her characters. If that sounds intimidating, know that the reader is spared the numbers and equations–and the problems themselves form a kind of poetry which complements the narrator’s spare prose and the interspersed fairy tales and family lore.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister. I picked this up from the bestseller section of my library with some trepidation: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to another nonfiction book (I read two last month! surely that’s my quota for the year!) and I certainly had hesitations of reliving any of the last four years. To my surprise, it was not only riveting but somewhat therapeutic reading. I was at the Women’s March in DC in 2017; I’ve marched many a time since then; I’ve seen and read about so many subsequent political outrages that it has all become a blur, and I really appreciated seeing the events contextualized in a narrative. I also learned more about activist women I was aware of but not well-acquainted with–Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters–and I am grateful to learn about their political legacies.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry. It took me a little time to get oriented in this story–since I enjoyed the author’s book about 19th century Essex, I did come in expecting a period novel and was surprised when I realized that it takes place in the twentieth century. But it is a splendidly spooky book with mysterious secrets and supernatural presences amid descriptions of Prague libraries and Czech glass factories. It is admittedly bleak; the characters who feel themselves pursued by the titular spirit are really haunted by evils and injustices of the past–their own and others. World War II plays a major role. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Melmoth and The Ten Muse, both recent, find themselves preoccupied with fascism and its aftermath.) My recollection of The Essex Serpent was more joyful, peppered as it was with the pleasures of scientific discovery, but in retrospect I suppose that was a fairly mournful novel too.

Currently Reading

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. I didn’t want to take a library book with me on a weekend trip to the mountains, so I brought this volume (which I’d claimed from a friend who moved last year). I read “The Lottery” out loud to my fellow travelers, then went back to read some of the new-to-me stories on my train ride home. “The Lottery” is unlike most of the stories I’ve read so far, which take place in apartment buildings in midcentury New York where lonely men and women try to eke out a comfortable life. But the mundane environments are haunted by mystery–disappearances, mistaken identities–and I think the rest of the collection will make a delightfully spooky read next month.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Speaking of Shirley Jackson, LitHub reposted A Close Reading of the Best Opening Paragraph of All Time which dives into what find so delightfully creepy and captivating about We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Obviously I’m delighted by the coverage of what may be Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare’s plays at the Free Library of Philadelphia, but I’m a bit stymied by the way the news has been received online–some folks are out here talking about the “discovery” of the “hidden” folio that has been somehow buried in a bumbling library. Let me assure you that the Free Library was perfectly aware that they possessed a First Folio, and it was by no means buried–First Folios are treasured and tend to attract a lot of scholarly visitors. Many people have looked at this very Folio! But if there is no provenance or historical record or ownership, there is no way to know it belonged to Milton. Indeed, the “discovery” here is a very meticulous comparative kind of scholarly theorizing, involving an intimate knowledge of Milton’s handwriting as well as his poetics, and that is a much cooler story.  This Guardian article is a pretty measured take, and then this Inquirer article interviews a few of the key local players.

I’m fond of the wry humor of the webcomic Wondermark, but this post is a departure from the author’s usual fare: frustrated by the movie poster design for Mortal Engines, which features a closeup of the main female character’s face instead of the element that makes the movie really unusual (it features immense traveling cities that move about on wheels), he does a survey of similarly minimalist movie posters that fail to convey crucial story elements.

Hustlers is deliciously good fun but I also appreciate how it offers non-male-gazey ways to see its subjects, as described in this Vox article on Jennifer Lopez’s body.

I was sad to hear that Shakesville had shuttered, although this painful recap of the blog’s recent history (written by a former contributer) suggests that it was time for a break. I can’t speak to this conflict or the community most affected by it, but I do want to acknowledge how valuable the blog and its work was to me in the past. I was a reader and regular commenter more than ten years ago, and at that time it felt to me like a warm community–it offered a platform for discourse that The Toast commentariat would later fulfill for me. Shakesville introduced me to the blogs of feminist writers like Sady Doyle and Kate Harding (and Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose, in turn, hosted a vibrant commentariat that overlaps with the communities of The Toast and Captain Awkward–an awesome trio of smart, well-moderated social spaces). And whatever one may say of Melissa McEwan as a person, she is an incredible writer who spoke powerfully to the experiences I have had as a woman, as a fat woman, and as an assault survivor, when I did not yet have words of my own to express them. I’ve linked to several such posts on my own blog: the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck when we sacrifice our own emotional health to keep the peace; how making and protecting boundaries is seen as weakness instead of strength, on how sitting with fear changes the way you engage with the world.

Earlier this month I was working on a submission for my creative writing class and found myself frustrated with the depiction of women in the assigned reading. My frustration worked its way into my submission: what is a non-male writer supposed to do with men? I asked. Should we write them the way they write us, all surface? Should we write them with the interiority they won’t give us? Should we write as though they don’t exist? According to LitHub, some women writers have answered this question by writing their male main characters with such generous empathy that they find a back way in for their own stories.


I have not played the untitled goose game and probably will not anytime soon (all I want to do right now is roam Tamriel picking flowers) but I am extremely enjoying all the primo goose content. Some faves: The Shatner Chatner’s I am the horrible goose that lives in the town (“Where is the boy for me to disrespect? I am his least friend. I see his games an I contempt them. I ruin his life! Glasses for him? No! Shoelaces for him? No!”), Fanbyte’s theologizing on the meaning of goose, and this majestic video:

Reading Roundup: August 2019

Except for the first weekend in August, when I needed a gently used paperback to take to the beach, I pulled all of this month’s reading from the stacks in my university’s library. I’ve started a couple of books on my phone–The Poppy War, and Tor’s free ebook of the month, The Necessary Beggar–but I’ve really been enjoying my library-sponsored respite from screens, so I don’t think I’ll finish those by the end of the month.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Americanah by the same author, and at first I missed the force and distinctiveness of the later novel’s narrators. The narrator of Hibiscus is elusive in the beginning; although the novel opens with a violent, evocative image–narrator Kambili’s father throws a religious book at her brother and shatters their mother’s most prized possession–this moment seems to unfold in slow motion, with Kambili’s attention diverted by the tropical surroundings of their home and the distance of memory. Before long, I realized that shy and self-effacing Kambili has developed her silence and powers of observation to adapt to the terrifying abuse in her household. This novel is the story of how she and her brother start to find their way out, but even as she finds her voice, Kambili simmers with unspoken emotion.

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark. Since I often speak to alumni who work in fields adjacent to water science and distribution, I’ve become glaringly aware of how little I know about what happened in Flint. Most of what I had heard is that the problem stemmed from Flint’s water source and that there is a grievous inequity between the utilities that the people of Flint could access and what whiter, wealthier neighborhoods can access. The latter is true, but this book does not reduce accountability for Flint’s water crisis to a single organization or policy action. There were many steps along the way when a key decisionmaker handwaved a necessary environmental protection requirement, dismissed citizen complaints, or withheld environmental and medical information from residents–but even beyond the chain of negligence, Flint’s water system exists within historical framework of housing inequity and failing infrastructure that beleaguers many US cities. I learned that any city I’ve ever lived in can (and probably has, at some point) become ground zero for a public health crisis related to water–and that the pattern of environmental injustice and urban decay in Flint (or anywhere similar) is a vivid illustration of the lasting effects of institutional racism.

The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. I’m not big on true crime, but I was lured in by the promise of learning about how women actually lived in Victoria’s reign. In that respect, this book does not disappoint! From what little I knew about Jack the Ripper’s victims, I did indeed assume they were all prostitutes–as did the police force who investigated the murders. But this detailed history shows that there were a number of reasons a woman might be on the streets at night–most often because she couldn’t afford a bed–and a number of things an impoverished woman might do for a meager living apart from the sex trade. The book dives into all the detail that is known about the five women: where they were born, who they married (all but one had been married), how many children they bore (three were mothers), how much education they’d had (three could read), and what circumstances led them to a precarious existence where they might be targeted by a killer and not missed until the following morning. The book is at its best when sketching out the landscape in which these women moved–the rise of factories and fall of certain skilled trades, the dangers of the workhouse, the attractions of public spaces like coffee houses and pubs. I was less moved by the attempts to color in these outlines with speculation about what the women thought and felt about their circumstances; for example, while the author takes what I consider a sensible view toward sex work (i.e. that it is not inherently immoral, but that our culture is grossly titillated by the idea of murdering prostitutes), she’s considerably less sympathetic toward the alcoholism that seemed to afflict all five women.

Regardless, period film and fiction would benefit greatly from the historical research here, and the need for this kind of historical reclamation is clear. The very day I finished reading this book, I started watching the new What We Do in the Shadows TV series; in one episode, the vampire Laszlo introduces us to his garden of topiary vulva sculptures and leers at the one he says belonged to Polly Nichols. Polly (or Mary Ann) Nichols was the first of the canonical five victims of Jack the Ripper: she was a married mother of five, although she left her husband and lived out her days sleeping in dosshouses, workhouses, and on the street. (The husband immediately moved in and had a baby with their next-door neighbor upon Polly’s departure, so fill in the blanks.) After that, Polly scraped together a living begging, doing housework, and pawning pieces of her charwoman uniform. There’s no evidence that she sold sex, and her occasional dosshouse bedmate (another woman in her forties, Ellen) was a bit shocked at the suggestion at the coroner’s trial.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a big idea book that has muddy bits in its execution, and it took me a few chapters to get oriented to the society of the novel’s tidally locked planet January, but ultimately the world of this novel was compelling enough that I took to my bed early for two nights in order to finish it. The parallels to our own society are obvious but not ham-handed: the colonists in January live on land that isn’t theirs, and struggle to eke out an existence in a stratified society on a planet rushing toward environmental calamity, but the alienness of January and its major cities are otherworldly enough to allow for surprise and wonder. It’s also a nice narrative for positive representations of nontraditional relationships: there’s no romance, per se, but there are intense partnerships built out of mutual protection and comforting physical touch, and a few bonds built out of respectful rivalry or conflict.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob. As good as everyone says. I am not an experienced reader of graphic novels, so I can’t attest that I am reading this book in the way it is meant to be read. I inhaled its pages of illustrated conversations: some funny, some painful, some reflective. The book opens and closes with the difficulty of explaining today’s news to her small biracial son, who can’t avoid exposure to our racist president’s televised rants. Heartbreakingly, Z is trying to piece together who the good guys are when some of his white family members voted red and his brown family members are anxious and scared. Talking to a curious little boy make our absurd reality so painfully clear. But my favorite parts of this book are its tenderest moments, when the author reflects on falling in love with her husband, making memories with her dying father, and learning to empathize with an abhorrently bigoted employer.

Elsewhere on the Internet

If The Five piqued your interest, you may like this Nursing Clio interview with the author. I am sorry but not surprised to know that she is being trolled by Ripperologists.

Devastating to lose both Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall in the same month. Toni Morrison’s contribution to literary culture cannot be overstated. Paule Marshall may not be as well known, but her novel Brown Girl, Brownstones has remained on my shelf despite three moves and numerous book cullings since I first read it. I recall it being melancholy and exquisitely written. I appreciated these glimpses of both literary icons from the perspective of another incredible black woman writer, Edwidge Danticat.

Loved this post about Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong at the Millions. One of my first scholarly papers (and, eventually, publications) was a close look at the fashion in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Not all novels are so deliciously and dangerously attentive to the symbolism of clothing, though, and I often feel confused or put off by descriptions of what people wear. I usually assume that is because I don’t know enough about fashion to understand how it should look or what it should mean, but now I feel reassured that many celebrated authors just aren’t that great at clothes.

Congrats to Jeannette Ng on her Campbell Award–and for her eviscerating acceptance speech which seems to have brought about a name change for the award. If you’re curious about what she calls her “weird little story,” I read it and liked it.

This satire has no right to be so real!! As I texted the friend who sent me this link: Rude to come in hot with the awkward sex act.
Critically Acclaimed Horror Film of the 2010s or Your Ph.D. Program?

Aaaah okay I mostly agree with this but it turns out I have really strong feelings about “cheers” (evil alignment! no question!) and believe “warmly” and “warm regards” give off seriously chaotic energy.

Since my neighbor and I have recently started saying “You KICK Miette??” when feeling attacked by one another or by the world, I am very pleased to see that poet Patricia Lockwood’s cat Miette got a profile in The Cut.

The Miette tweet itself, like a perfect short play in 20 seconds:

The artichoke

Have you ever cooked an artichoke?

They are a pain in the ass to prepare. If you want to steam a whole fresh artichoke, you first have to snip the spiny tips of every outer leaf so that they don’t draw blood. You have to cut off the stem so that the vegetable sits upright in its steam bath, and you have to saw off a good inch of useless tiny leaves clustered at the top of the globe.  You steam the artichoke in a little water so that its tight fist of fibrous petals begins to unclench–but not too much water, and not for so long that the artichoke wilts open like a dying rose. Either by bisecting the artichoke or by patiently delving into the center of its petals with a spoon, you scoop out the bristly inedible choke.

That’s just to cook the thing. To eat, you pull off one leaf at a time. You can also dip the leaf in garlicky butter or stuff cheese and breadcrumbs between all its herbaceous shingles, but ultimately you must slowly tear the artichoke into pieces and scrape off the tenderest part of each petal with your teeth until you reach the heart: delicate and subtle, but substantial.

Artichokes take time and loving attention to prepare, and it takes just as long to consume what little tenderness this spiky vegetable has to offer. For a long time, I only served steamed or stuffed artichokes when I had an audience: boyfriends, usually, but sometimes friends; once a small party of women who were trying to distract one of our number from a bad breakup. Only in recent years did I consider preparing artichokes for myself.

Photo by Pete Zebley of Central Tattoo Studio.

The artichoke is my most visible tattoo. When curious strangers ask me about it, I tell them that it was my gift to myself when I defended my dissertation and completed my PhD in literature. I’ll let you figure out the rest.