Reading Roundup: September 2018

Hello, friends! The world is on fire and I can’t quite catch my breath when I’m in proximity to the news, which is all day at work, but I also can’t quite bring myself to unplug. What I can do is bury myself in books during my commute!

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder. I picked this book up from my aforementioned favorite bookstore near my workplace, which sets its clearance table out on a highly trafficked sidewalk, like a trap. It looked like a light, humorous read for my plane trip over Labor Day weekend. This was an error on my part: the story is neither light nor funny, but mean-spirited and shallow. I read the whole thing because it is the right length for two legs of my trip and I did want to see how all these unpleasant characters would resolve their largely self-imposed conflicts. (And I didn’t have a backup book because we didn’t stop by my family’s favorite used bookstore as we usually do when I’m home.) I didn’t enjoy it except for the leg of my trip spent cowed into a corner by a tiny, somewhat malodorous seatmate whose in-flight magazine somehow required her to take up the entire middle armrest and some of my airspace as well. I needed the distraction, and the petty misanthropy of the book matched my own feelings during that time.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. Another pickup from the neighborhood clearance table. (I’m not complaining! Most of my books are still in their 12×12 moving boxes, so the occasional $5 treat is very welcome.) I’ve long been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s imaginative worlds and vivid writing; this book is not my favorite of hers, but for reasons that other readers might love. Writing partly in response to the film District 9‘s troubling caricatures of black South Africans, Lagoon imagines what would happen if a race of aliens with collective consciousness landed in Nigeria’s biggest city. The story centers around three extraordinary humans, and while most chapters are written from one of their perspectives, other chapters are told by side characters both extraordinary and not, human and not. (For example, the opening chapter is written from the perspective of a swordfish.) Together, these characters tell a complicated, chaotic story of alien invasion and what the inhabitants of Lagos risk losing–or gaining, in some cases. That is very cool, but stylistically not my cup of tea.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty.  The Kindle edition of this book has been on sale to promote the upcoming sequel, but after I read the free sample I went to my favorite brick-and-mortar to buy a paperback copy (having learned my lesson from Sofia Samatar’s glorious fantasy novels). At 569 pages, this book is a doorstop, but despite a busy schedule of theater outings and dinners one week, I devoured the book between Monday and Friday night. A reimagining of the legends of djinn and Middle Eastern folklore, The City of Brass reminded me of Samatar’s stories in that it is a richly drawn world barely touched by the overfamiliar tropes of Western medieval fantasy. It is less dense and erudite, but all the more accessible for a breathless read–and it is action-packed at a pace you don’t expect from a debut novel. I want simultaneously to re-read this story, see it as a film produced with the same level of polish as Thor: Ragnarok, and read the sequel immediately (it comes out in January).

In progress

Basic Witches by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman. When I was a kid, I had a slim hardback book called Teen Girl Talk: A Guide To Beauty, Fashion, and Health. It was the sort of girl’s manual that offers guidance like how to do simple calisthenics and choose clothing, nothing useful or racy about periods or whathaveyou. But I read and re-read this book throughout my preteen years; I particularly remember a section that explained the four fashion templates a girl could select as her personal style (ingenue, romantic, sporty, and classic), each illustrated with a swatch of fabric typical of the style (lace, lace, bold stripes, pinstripes–no, I still don’t know what the difference between ingenue and romantic was supposed to be). I studied this manual obsessively because I could not see my own girlhood in it. If this book describes what it is to be a girl, which of these four types would I become? What if they all sound boring and centered on things I don’t care about, like sports and boys?
Basic Witches bears some similarities to a girl’s wellness manual, right down to the calisthenics and beauty tips. But it doesn’t care about performing girlhood correctly–in fact, it explicitly invites readers of any gender, and doesn’t specify the reader’s age. Nor does it provide instructions for witchcraft, Wicca, or similar. It does offer recipes, rituals, and mantras for self-care and self-acceptance, with a few callouts to unruly women in history. Thus, I could see this book making a good gift to an adolescent who is trying to figure out how to express their unique spirit; I think it would have meant a lot to me to see something like this when I  was a confused teen who felt like a girl but not like an ingenue, whatever that is supposed to mean. As an adult, I am sorry to say that the book isn’t doing much for me–though I admire both writers a lot, I don’t hear their voices in this prose, and I don’t have much use for the mantras.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Tor Books offered a free ebook edition to promote the author’s next novel. I’d already read the free sample some time ago and felt it was not precisely my jam, but my Twitter feed is full of very smart women who love this book, so I decided to give it another try.
I’m about a third of the way through, and I do plan to finish it, but it’s somewhat painful going for me–the protagonists are children who have all manner of cruelties visited upon them by classmates and relatives and school administrators, and I am so anxious for them in a way that feels fundamentally different from the page-turning anticipation I felt for The Brass City‘s end-of-chapter cliffhangers. Sometimes fictional anxieties are cathartic in this era of uncertainty and terrible news, but for me it is not working this way. It is an imaginative story full of surprises, though, so credit where it is due.

Elsewhere on the Internet

As noted in early installments of Books I Have Loved, I really enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and this piece in the New Yorker may help you feel the same. (Bonus pop culture reference: the author links Gaskell’s fictions to the recent film Sorry to Bother You.)

In other media news, I tweeted about all the Fringe Festival shows I went to see this month. It’s not as epic as the time I did an alimentary analysis of all the Fringe Festival shows I saw in 2014, but I wanted to capture something of the experience. For many years, I’ve browsed the Fringe catalog and curated an email to persuade friends to see some shows with me; revisiting those emails is a little glimpse into artworks and social experiences that were shared once and then carried away by the tide of time. Anyway, this is the start of the thread.


Gaming Roundup: The New Summer of Gaming

Last summer, I committed to playing–and completing, if possible–as many last-generation console games as I could. I’m slow to adopt new tech, so even though the new console had already been available for three years, I made my usual excuses: my old one still works, there were still so many games I’d never played on it, I didn’t need the timesuck in my limited leisure time, I didn’t need the wallet pressure until I’d paid off my grad school debt. And you know what? Last summer I had a lot of fun playing and writing up games no one else was playing anymore.

But when I finally bought the next-gen in May, the rewards were immediate and delightful. I had a suite of next-gen games all ready to download from when they were offered free or cheap during console promotions. The new console had a stronger wifi connection–a crucial improvement in my old apartment, where my connection strength was subject to the whims of weather. (In my new apartment, the console is wired.) Gaming became been exceptionally social for me this summer, as not only my neighbor but another friend of ours dropped in several times to drink wine spritzers and try out new-to-us games.

I’ve had to talk myself out of feeling self-conscious about the new console. I didn’t feel this way when writing up summaries of the games I played on my old console, but that was a self-consciously retro project and an economical one to boot. The new console and its games are a luxury for me, but two or three years behind everyone else, it feels late or boring or unserious to comment.

I know that shouldn’t matter–surely games, like books, still have meaning years after their release dates–and in any case, I do it for myself and the handful of people who read my blog (hi!). So here’s what I’ve been playing in the new Summer of Gaming.

Completed, sort of

Mass Effect: Andromeda. I wrote about my initial experience with the game here, and my feelings remain unchanged. To my surprise–I was expecting a little more to the story–I finished the main quest the weekend before I moved into my new apartment. In keeping with the general vibe of the game, the main quest did not end with a soaring heroic climax: instead, it offered a new area to drive around, plentiful opportunities for your companions to pop off one-liners, and a brief but pleasant respite for applause before you get onto the never-ending work of settling space. I misted up anyway, with all those side characters speaking rapturously about home while mine was cluttered with boxes and all the inexplicable grit that emerges when you pack up your house.
At the end of it all, I have but one bitter complaint. I am not sure who would have been the right love interest for logical, professional Rose Ryder, but I absolutely did not mean to get locked into a romance with a crime lord who won’t even visit your ship. I thought we just had a sexy heist flirtation! I didn’t realize I’d never be able to flirt again once I helped him take over Planet Crime.

Oxenfree. I never would have completed this game alone. I started the game with my neighbor for company, and I will never forget our experience of the game’s opening, from the boat trip to the island to the discovery in the cave. There we were, just playing a sulky teen having a bad time at a party, and suddenly we were in the midst of a supernatural cataclysm! We didn’t have the subtitles turned on at first and missed some key dialogue due to both of us yelling pretty much nonstop during the cave reveal. (We then watched that section on YouTube and decided that hearing it was kind of worse than not hearing it.)
The rest of the game is deliciously spooky and suspenseful, and it was so much fun to share it with a friend. It does break my completionist heart that you can’t earn the best possible ending without playing through a second time. On the plus side, we started a replay with our other video game friend and noticed some interesting differences, so we have some motivation to revisit this world and scare ourselves silly again.

Gone Home. Speaking of spooky games! Although it’s been out for ages, I knew little about this game going in, and I had my shoulders up around my ears nearly the whole time I explored the silent house. At the end, I admired the way the game had set up the scene–the stormy night, the furniture in disarray–and played on my expectations for what would happen there. I also appreciated the level of detail that went into building its 90s-era universe; I actually owned some of the textbooks you find in your little sister’s room.
That said, the first-person exploration style of game is not for me. In Gone Home you can flip every switch and pick up every piece of clutter, and I am indeed the type of player who will open every door and sack every credenza. But instead of admiring the meticulously drawn pencils and the way they roll forward when I tug a drawer open, I’ll just be disappointed that I can’t use them as a food or weapon, or sell them off to a merchant NPC, or engage with any NPCs at all.

In progress

Dragon Age: Inquisition. Heck yeah! When I first set up the console, I immediately started a new character. My… sixth, I think? Ridiculous, but DA:I has been one of my more social gaming experiences, particularly since two of my friends also play, so that adds a different dimension to the experience. This game was a comfort replay on my old console, but it’s an even more beautiful game on the new console, as there are suddenly lots of trees in Skyhold and Cullen’s eyelashes load at the same time as the rest of his face, and it has enough little secrets that there are still things I’ve never seen before. Since I bought the GOTY version, it also has some new equipment as well as DLC that was not available on the old console. It’s the DLC that places this game firmly in the “In Progress” category; I can’t load in my older console games, so before I can confront the architect of our misfortunes, I need to play through the main quest again. Fine with me–my achievements didn’t carry over either, so I get the satisfaction of unlocking those again.

Beyond Eyes. This is a sweet, slow-paced game with a lovely mechanic: you are a little blind girl who leaves the safety of your own yard to search for a friendly cat that used to visit you. The world you move in is startlingly blank until you approach something closely enough to perceive it through sound or touch or smell; then the features of your world emerge in delicate watercolors. Sometimes you are mistaken; you approach the sound of running water and believe you are headed toward a fountain like the one in your yard, but it turns out to be a drain. Or you feel nervous approaching a field of crows–crows scare you–but as you get closer, you realize you are passing a yard full of chickens.

Dreamfall Chapters. I’ve barely dipped in here, and it’s tough going. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was one of my favorite games on the original Xbox: beautiful, interesting worlds; good voice acting; compelling story. It’s an heir to the point-and-click adventure: you move around (slowly), pick up things, solve puzzles, choose conversational options that may have consequences. But gameplay and storytelling have evolved so much in the past decade–consider Life Is Strange, which offers these mechanics in a nearly seamless cinematic experience–and this long-awaited game isn’t really on that level. Still, I’m glad to find out what happened to Zoe and Kian since I last saw them, and I’ll probably limp along.

Sims 4. Why don’t I ever learn, friends? Sims are just not meant for consoles. Theoretically you can enter cheat codes on console Sims 4, but I have heard that this affects your ability to unlock achievements, so I’ll pass. Like the Sims 3 console version, you can’t explore the neighborhood seamlessly; there’s a load screen when you enter another lot. It does have some new mechanics that I kind of like–the emotion meter adds a little more human interest to your experience–but it’s the sort of thing that makes it more rewarding to play one family or even one Sim, rather than presiding over your neighborhood in the Godlike model I favored in Sims 3. On the plus side, the limitations of the game keep it from being a timesuck. I shepherd my Sim family for about one Sim day at a time, maybe two; that’s really my max before the gameplay gets less meditative and more tedious.

Seasons After Fall. Like Beyond Eyes, it was the look of this game that enticed me–and even though I’ve only played a short time as my little Impressionist fox friend, I think I’m going to like leaping and bounding around this lovely world.

Tales from the Borderlands. I played the first episode on my old console, but was able to reserve the rest for the new console. I started the episode over to show my neighbor, but it’s a bit more gory than our usual entertainments–I’d forgotten! When you’re in the midst of a Borderlands phase, you take the blood and shooting for granted. When I heard myself explaining the scene where Rhys and Van take a car down to Pandora (“There’s always a car scene, and it always has good music, and at least one creature always gets gruesomely run over”) I realized, okay, I’ll come back to this when I’m in the mood for it.

Witness. I’m not sure about this game–which was a free download, but is typically on the pricey side! I like puzzles, but when I finally got out of the garden into the wider world, I felt dismayed that I’d have to trudge around solving more of them.

In the Queue

Tomb Raider, which I am not yet sure if I’ll replay. I did enjoy it, and I know there is more for me to unlock there, but it’s unlikely that I would revisit it if not for the “definitive” edition that came with my new console.

Rise of the Tomb Raider, which also came with my new console!

Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. I look forward to this glimpse into Chloe’s life before Max, although I will miss the time-manipulation mechanic.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India. Another free game. I don’t have too much attachment to the AC series and have heard nothing, good or bad, about this one.

Reading Roundup: July/August 2018

Well, friends, I read and write to you now from a new apartment. I hired some strong and enterprising young people to pick up and move roughly 10 cubic feet of books, which I’d meticulously wiped clean of dust and packed into boxes with the generous help of some friends. As I dusted, I held each book in my hands and seriously considered whether I would plausibly reference or re-read it at any point. Several dozen books did not make this cut. Those that remained caused a little bit of an existential crisis.

I love reading new fiction. Apart from to new-to-me old stories, the world keeps putting out fantastic new stories and I keep eating them up. According to my bimonthly book-logging, I read 31 new-to-me books last year and re-read 1 (A Handmaid’s Tale). I am reading at roughly the same pace this year, so perhaps this is my post-grad-school book rate. So when I am going to reread all these books that I just moved? (I actually don’t know how many there are; I only know the approximate volume thanks to the helpfully labeled boxes I packed them into.) Will I just move an ever-growing volume of novels from place to place until their bindings come unglued and their yellowing paper starts to crumble? Will my nephew become heir to ten cubic feet of cracked spines and shedding pages with barely legible margin notes?

Anyway, here’s what I read this summer.

First, I finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and it continued to spook, surprise, delight, and provide an unexpectedly appealing advertisement for visiting the salt marshes of Essex.

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved Station Eleven by the same author, and have had this earlier novel on my shelf since Christmas. I was reminded to pick it up after reading the author’s thoughtful response to a bad review. (Between this and one of the plotlines of Jane the Virgin season 4, I have decided to never read any reviews, good or bad, should I ever publish a novel.) The Singer’s Gun lacks some of the layers I loved about Station Eleven, but the kinship is recognizable in its melancholic approach–its characters all appear to be mourning their jobs and relationships even before losing them–and in its thoughtful meandering exploration of what in most novels would be a crisis. For awhile, main character Anton spends his days doing nothing–but I enjoyed it, as his nothing involved a quietly lovely routine in a sunny island town. This book is an excellent summer read in that its premise offers suspense–I love a good heist plot in the summertime–but doesn’t require much energy of you.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. I felt deeply unsettled by the first section of this book, which details the affair between a young woman and a much older wealthy and famous writer. The writing is lovely and the uneasiness familiar–I myself have never dated a man so many decades older than myself, but the story explores the various points where their respective social powers are asymmetrically balanced (his money, her lack thereof; her health, his frailty) and I think it was that growing, stomach-tightening awareness of the imbalance that I recognized. I can’t say that I enjoyed seeing it on the page, but I suppose I can see the value of a woman writer telling the flip side of an “aged intellectual dates alluring young woman” story such as, say, The Dying Animal by Philip Roth. Inadvertently (by way of this odd little piece about strawberry jam), I found out that the author of Asymmetry had been in a relationship with Philip Roth when she was rather young and he was rather old. I wish I didn’t know this. It made the experience of reading this section a little worse.
But then I got to the second section, where the author switched to a first-person account of an Iraqi-American economics PhD who is detained in a London airport on his way to visit his family not long after the U.S. invaded Iraq. The author gives this character an elegant and wistful voice for the stream of observations, memories, and philosophy he contemplates to keep himself occupied in the interminable wait. Setting aside some not-inconsequential questions about what it means for a white American to voice a citizen endangered by the U.S. military, the writing itself is gorgeous and warmly human.
I felt a little misled as I watched this thoughtful character-sketch unfold into a much larger political critique. I had felt such dismay reading the painful, guarded May-December romance narrative, both because of the subject matter and because we so often pigeonhole young female writers into autobiography, either by requiring they eviscerate their inner lives for clicks or by assuming that is all they are capable of. I’m so much more than that, this second section seems to say. And I’m a little mad about it. Not at the author. After all, her relationship was well-known to people who know these things–how likely is it that she could have gotten a book out the door without first telling that story? It’s almost as if the semiautobiographical first story is a toll she had to pay in order to get on with the work of inventing a character.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. This book was a delicious read for the summer: scary and suspenseful and weird. I knew very little about the story going in, just a general sense from the movie trailers that there would be luridly lush growth in the site of a mysterious environmental disaster–and the narrative absolutely delivered on that eerie, haunting verdure and teeming life. Its creeping sense of dread emerges from scenes that are both beautiful and gross, somehow.
I do plan to see the film at some point, but I think Area X would make a very cool setting for a video game.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker. I started hearing about this title in my social media feeds in response to Netflix’s extremely horrible-looking Insatiable. Dietland is also being made into a TV series, and has been reprinted with a gorgeous new cover which led me to pick it up and take it home last time I visited my favorite bookstore. It’s an incredible read: fast-paced and cinematic, but thoughtful and authentic. It offers the vicarious pleasure of a truly gruesome revenge fantasy but also the hope and acceptance of a gentler story; it ultimately argues for strength and fury without violence. Plum’s journey to self-acceptance is anything but easy or glib–I had to put the book down at several points and collect myself–but the change in her character felt earned and right. This book feels like a unicorn among even the sort of books I love: not only did it sketch out the interiority of its obese protagonist with seriousness and sensitivity, but it makes a solid effort at intersectional feminism as it places Plum’s life experiences alongside other forms of micro- and macro-aggressions experienced by women in the novel.

Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton. It took me some time to warm up to this novelized account from the perspective of Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and third wife to Ernest Hemingway. Hilary Mantel has given me impossibly high standards for historical fiction, and one wants one’s literary legends to come to life in an appropriately elevated style. I had my doubts as the awkward frame story introduced Martha Gellhorn in her old age looking back at her letters, and the uninspiring first meeting between writings in the purported paradise of Key West. But the novel’s workmanlike prose and chummy dialogue turned out to be the right tools to carry me through Marty’s coverage of the Spanish civil war and the dicey first days of their adulterous courtship; you can even see why she’d allow herself to get mixed up with him, despite a healthy amount of skepticism for his possessiveness and his braggadocio swaggering around Spain pulling strings. As the authors returned home, fought, married, and fought some more, the novel felt much longer than it actually was–but, I suppose, so did their four-year marriage. At any rate, the book did pull me along on what turned out to be an absorbing account of experiences that would have been harrowing if the narrator slowed down and explored any one moment too intimately: wars on many fronts, crumbling marriages, the highs and lows of writing and publishing. And I feel motivated by the depiction of Hemingway and Gellhorn spending their mornings at the typewriter and afternoons fishing and swimming; that’s one way to get the work done.

And this summer’s re-read: The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. There’s a second edition out now, and I would warmly recommend it to any of my peers who are publishing their first academic monograph, or considering leaving academia for publishing, or looking to pick up some copy editing as a side hustle. I read the first edition in 2010 or 2011, and it gave me a solid foundation for understanding the roles of different kinds of editors in academic publishing. (I’d had a couple informational interviews by then, both with acquiring editors, and their work is so different from what I imagined that I couldn’t really wrap my head around it until I read Saller’s explanation.) It’d be worthwhile to get the second edition since much has changed in both the publishing world and the style guide world in the last decade (for example, the first edition includes a dismissive note about they/their pronouns which I really hope the author has reconsidered). But this isn’t really book about style guides or academic publishing careers: it’s a manifesto for maintaining cordial relations with authors who might feel personally attacked by your edits.  The author urges carefulness, transparency, and flexibility; I can’t say that I learned those virtues from this book, since they are also important qualities in the customer-facing roles I’ve had, but it was refreshing and reassuring to revisit them now that copy editing is one of my current job responsibilities.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Summer of Love

I was just polishing up my next reading roundup, adding in a few links that I had to dig out of my Twitter feed, when I realized that I missed the old curated link roundups I used to post here and on my food blog. Who knows whether they interest anyone other than me? But I still refer back to these old posts when I am looking up sources or half-formed ideas on either blog. Now that I’m back in a job where I can keep up with Twitter throughout the day, the posts I read spark thoughts that turn into themes over the course of a few days. When I was dissertating, they might have become part of a chapter or a series on my old food blog. Now, I’m not sure, but I’d like to record them all the same.

Let’s start with a nice moment. My gentleman friend, who is always so good about supporting and encouraging his friends in their arts and their passions, tweeted me this link from Electric Literature: Why Women Should Do More Literary Manspreading. “Looking forward to reading your massive novel one day,” he added. I was startled–I received this message at work, where my editing responsibilities often involve gleefully cutting down bloated passages of academic text. I don’t think of myself as verbose. But at the same time, I was drafting the post that would become Some Lessons I Didn’t Know I Learned at Grad School, and I was cringing about the length and seeming disconnectedness of the stories. I wondered whether I should break it into more than one post, or just not post at all. But then I got this encouragement in the form of a link, and thought, to heck with it. Send post.

Speaking of Electric Literature, which is just on my Good List lately, they are doing a whole series of posts where contemporary female authors list their favorite books by people who are not men. As you might imagine, it is extremely my jam.

Sorry (not sorry) that this is turning into an Electric Literature fan blog, but I appreciate that they had the scoop on The Wife, a film adapted from a book I rather liked, starring Glenn Close who is not who I would have pictured in this role but who is so, so perfect for it.

Speaking of adaptations of Books I Love! I can’t believe there is going to be a film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing! I can’t believe it will star Ruth Negga as Claire, which sounds incredible for many reasons including the way she looks in red lipstick, and Tessa Thompson as Irene, who is going to give this reticent character such a sensual and intelligent electricity. White lady director whose acting work I admired in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, please do this well.

One more surprising adaptation: the gorgeous puzzle game Monument Valley is also going to be a live action/CG hybrid movie?! (Via Paste, an excellent website for people who like books, movies, and video games.)

You’ve already read this because it’s so good, but Star Wars actor (and namesake of my Ryder) Kelly Marie Tran was in the New York Times talking about how she won’t let the haters bring her down.

Love well-put-together pieces on trends in book covers, book titles, etc.: Vanity Fair, How Publishing’s Floral-Print Trend Came to Rule the World’s Bookshelves

I adored The Westing Game as a child, even though I didn’t fully understand everything in it. That was often the way: as a ravenous reader in a school library that might not have had the most up-to-date selection (except in the American Girls collection), I devoured children’s books that were written in the 60s and 70s–recently enough that they didn’t feel “old” like Mary Poppins and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (which I also loved), but not so contemporary as the Babysitter’s Club or Saddle Club books. This piece at Public Books places The Westing Game in its context: bleak, skeptical bicentenntial America.

My favorite bookstore is Penn Book Center, an independent store that is now mere steps from my workplace. The storefront is unassuming, but inside is a treasure trove of literary fiction and poetry (and other things, but most of what I care about is at the front of the shop), gorgeous art books, and a clearance table full of surprising finds. Even if all I do is skim clearance and the carefully curated top shelf of each row, I find things I want and will love.

My love for PBC will never diminish, but I was very excited to learn that my own neighborhood will be acquiring a new bookstore–for what I think might be the first time! If you wish to give me the gift of local browsing and literary events and a growing TBR pile, you can contribute to their start-up costs here.

Some lessons I didn’t know I learned at grad school

I am slowly packing my apartment with the oversight of some companionable chaperones. Last week, my benefactor was the first friend I made in grad school more than ten years ago. I poured them a glass of wine, ordered Thai food, and pulled out two crates of notebooks and overstuffed folders that have been languishing in one of my closets since I moved into this apartment five years ago. Enormous staple-bursting single-sided printouts made up a sizeable portion of this cache. In our early graduate school days, we printed out entire chapters and essays to mark up and discuss in class.

There’s no sense in hanging onto them now. Should I wish to chase the ghost of an idea I learned from one of these packets, I could find it online and mark up a digital copy with an ease I could not have imagined when I was budgeting out my computer center print job ration for the semester. Besides, having recently worked at a special collections library and archive, I have a good sense of what is happening on a molecular level to these haphazardly stored files. The mission was to unburden myself of as much moldering old paper as possible.

I saved a few of my own papers with professorial approval scrawled in the margins. I saved one of the official letters sent by my university, informing me that I had been awarded a teaching assistant stipend of $13,994 plus a $6,006 supplement because of my fellowship. “This is a historical document,” I explained to my friend. “Look at you,” they replied, “an extra $667 a month!” I realize how fortunate I was, of course–on my $20K/year I was able to I live alone in the city, just a few blocks from the Reading Terminal Market where I bought cheap groceries I had plenty of time to cook. But I also remember feeling every bit of that financial gift, wondering whether my classroom contributions were worth that extra $667 a month (for nine months).

Most of the rest of the papers went into a box to be recycled, although we read aloud some scraps for nostalgia’s sake–including the first essay I completed as a shiny new grad student.”‘Two Sides of the Same Klein Bottle,'” read my friend incredulously. (In my defense, most academics are very bad at a titles.) They flipped through for marginalia and saw that the professor had highly praised the essay and commented “Let’s talk.” Picking up the next assignment for that class, they read the professor’s suggestion that the paper might become an article, and again “Let’s talk.” My friend made a disgusted noise, then apologized. “Not that this isn’t an impressive performance…” they began. “…except that it definitely was not, not in my first semester of grad school,” I interrupted.

Because the Klein bottle paper was the first academic essay I submitted in my first semester of graduate school, I was very anxious about meeting my professor’s expectations, so I dropped by his office hours to chat. I remember the meeting favorably: we talked through some points of my argument and he reassured me that I was on the right path. As the next assignment approached, he emailed me to inquire whether I needed to meet again to discuss. I was flattered, but did not respond right away. After the next meeting of our weekly class, he called after me as I was on my way out. I paused near the doorway, burning with embarrassment for being singled out in front of my classmates, although I could not put a finger on why. “Did you need to see me about your paper?” the professor asked. I said that I did not need to meet, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. Then I hoofed it.

A soft-spoken second-year PhD student was waiting for me in the hall. Quietly, looking as red-faced as I felt, he gently explained that the professor had a tendency to single out young female students, take them to the ballet, things like that. Did I understand?

I did understand. (And I’ve never forgotten how odd it sounded, the taking of young female students to the ballet, but the implication was clear as ice.) I did not meet with that professor alone again. As it happened, I was already starting to distance myself from Lacan and the whole boy’s club of psychoanalytic literary theory, so I did not take a class from that professor again either. I did not consider it a loss.

Thanks to that mortified but determined young man, there’s no #MeToo story there, at least not for me. (There were other whispers, and about ten years later, this same professor voluntarily resigned from a leadership position as the department underwent an EEOC investigation following allegations of misconduct involving a different faculty member.) But seeing these flattering notes on my naive little essays made my friend and I shudder. I was not acquainted with the term “grooming” at the time, nor had I an inkling that academia was anything less than a paradise of equality and meritocracy. At 24, I did not yet have words to explain the unspoken lesson in the hallway, but I absorbed it anyway.

I extracted from the crate an enormous green folder bulging with so many papers that I had to lay it on the ground to dust it off, exclaiming with dismay at my past self for this egregious misuse of materials. When I opened it, I saw that its immense volume included printouts and notes from an introductory course in women’s studies–the course that I often say was the most meaningful class I took in graduate school. The class was attended by students across disciplines (I remember students in philosophy, psychology, media studies, and dance), which gave me a glimpse into how scholarship looked in other departments. The class gave me my first encounter with the concepts of compulsory heterosexuality and feminist epistemology, which for the first time gave me language to describe what has always felt to me like a complicated relationship with my femininity. The class is probably also the first place where I truly reckoned with my white privilege; for a long time, I assumed that being a racial minority in my hometown gave me a special pass, but as we delved deep into discussion on the black feminist writers I already knew and loved, I realized that I had a lot left to learn.

As I reflected on these memories with my friend, they recalled a particular class meeting which culminated in our beloved and respected professor asking them to stop talking. They did not remember that I was also present in class that day and expressed chagrin that I had witnessed what was a mortifying moment, if an instructive one. It’s not my place to tell their story, but that class meeting was mortifying and instructive for me too.

It sounds terrible out of context, so let me try to explain. Many of our conversations in that class were heated. I recall a session when we were discussing This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writing by women of color. One of my white classmates expressed frustration with the book’s depiction of whites: how was she supposed to learn from this book, she asked, when it clearly had such a low opinion of her? I was struggling too: the place I saw myself most in the book was Audre Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly,” in which Lorde respectfully but fiercely criticized the white scholar’s erasure of black history in her book, which purported to be a base text for radical feminism. I felt raw and unnerved by this letter: as a white literary scholar who loves and writes about black literature, what erasures and intellectual violence had I unknowingly been perpetrating?  I have never stopped thinking about that question; I’ve been thinking about it again very recently, having learned that Nella Larsen’s Passing (precisely the book I worried about mistreating) is being made into a film by a white female director (with two smart and stellar actors as Claire and Irene, so I remain cautiously optimistic). It was painful, but it is better to ask the question than to never ask it.

The memory I shared with my friend and classmate was a day our class was discussing black feminism and queer feminism–two perspectives that are not opposing sides in any respect, but we were learning and misunderstandings were inevitable. The discussion got loud and agitated quickly. There were raised voices. I think I was quiet; I remember feeling like a child watching their parents fight as our professor tried to give everyone space to be heard while making sure the conversation continued to move forward. That meant that some of the white students were told to stop speaking for a time. It hurt! But it was not wrong.

I knew that I learned in that class that sometimes the most supportive thing I can do, as a white feminist, is to be quiet. (Obviously it’s also important to speak up when it means showing support, but I feel that this is a skill adjacent to knowing when to shut up.) What I didn’t realize I learned at the same time is that sometimes progress looks like conflict. I am a deeply conflict-averse person. I hate arguments, and to be fair, I think many disagreements can be resolved peaceably and respectfully. But tempers flared high in that classroom because what we were discussing mattered so much. It’s not wrong that people got angry, or hurt, or tearful. It was important.

Later that week, I unearthed another set of files–this one in a handy plastic box with clasps and a handle. The papers in it are dated from before my last move, but apparently when I moved I still thought them important enough to keep close at hand. The contents were folders that contained employee handbooks mixed in with printouts of early versions of my dissertation chapters, and spiral notebooks that were filled with job notes from the front and research notes from the back. Handling them gave me a powerful sense memory of the balancing act I was attempting in those days: literally flip-flopping from professional to professorial, carefully notating the responsibilities for jobs I wanted and also ideas from journal articles I printed out to read on the train. Most painful was the notebook I was apparently using for every aspect of my life from winter 2009 to summer 2010.

It made me feel a little sad for 2010 Sara, to see how much she was trying to do while having so little to go on. The prospectus notes preceded the oral exam notes in the notebook even though the oral exam preceded an entire semester of prospectus research and writing–how badly I wanted to get ahead of the game! There were notes and lists from early informational interviews I had with publishing professionals, when I knew little about that industry and even less about what job opportunities besides teaching and editing there might be for an English PhD candidate. Let us not speak of the poems.

On the other hand, how amazing it was to see all of those turning points laid out side-by-side. The methodical way I researched and annotated every step of my academic and professional journeys, all in the same notebook because that’s the tool I was most confident using. The gusto with which I chewed up my broken heart and spat out furious verse and purple prose. The to-do lists and shopping lists which aren’t mentioned in the tweet: supplies to lay in and steps to take to host parties and writing groups where we drank too much wine and co-wrote absurd poems on index cards, which helped me momentarily set aside the pain of losing two potential futures I had once cherished.

I’m not sure what the lesson is there, but I kept the pink notebook.

Contemplating the built environment

I’ve written my share of papers on how the built environment shapes human behavior. I contemplated the built environment from the safety of the fieldstone walls and slate pavers of an elegant little liberal arts campus, where legend had it that the halls were all built from one specific quarry in Arkansas, which a family had sold to the college in exchange for their child’s liberal arts degree. (Oh, to be young and too naive to apprehend the unspoken horror in this story.) Then I graduated with my English major and art history minor, and haven’t spent a comparable amount of time considering my surroundings since.

To be sure, I’ve lived and worked in some beautiful built environments, and I duly appreciated historic architecture and fine details when I had access to them. I’ve been employed by deeply toxic work environments that were bedecked in neoclassical columns and fine hardwoods and crown molding galore, and I admired the set-dressing even while unhappily mired in the drama that played out there. If you had asked me to write down my environmental observations in the style of a college essay about the built environment in those places, it would not have been the architecture that most influenced my behavior.

Now I work in a cube–albeit a larger than average cube–that I have not yet decorated except with posters and flyers promoting my employer’s services. No natural light shines on my workstation, although I’m a few steps away from a plate glass window where I can stand in the sun or watch the summer rain sweep down the busy street below. When I need a break from my screen, I can stroll outside down a little brick walkway placed there precisely for my visual pleasure.

Thoughtfully-paved, beshrubbed walks like this are a slightly belated gesture at the concept that the built environment influences our wellbeing and mindset. This one is only a year or two old, constructed between two of the Brutalist inventions that have lined this street since the 1970s. Though they are all quite ugly, each building is ugly in a unique way, and nearly every one is embellished with an outdoor sculpture. Sometimes the artwork is symbolic, like a bronze dragon named Mario who is the sculptural form of the neighboring university’s mascot, or a mesmerizing partial portrait of the lower half of a face which is located in front of a science center that specializes in taste and smell. Then there is the sculpture in front of my building: a bronze whorl that looks abstractly animal, with a hint of teeth above its central aperture. Dragon, I guess as I walk past. Eel biting its tail. One of those deep-sea creatures that swims in darkness. Vagina dentata. When I give visiting friends directions to my building, I tell them medallion.

On my walk this afternoon, I decided today would be the day I find out what the bronze is meant to represent. First I inspected the base: nothing. Back at my desk, search terms: street address plus varying combinations of bronze, circular, and sculpture. It takes some time, but finally I dredge up this gem from Building America’s First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania by George E. Thomas and David B. Brownlee:

[My office building] was one of the earliest buildings of the center, constructed in 1972. It proves the Venturi reversal of the modern dictum that sometimes “Less is a bore.” The small plaza in front of this bland piece of background architecture is enlivened by James Lloyd’s bronze globe-like sculpture entitled Untitled.

I’m amused by the authors’ frank disdain, but Untitled doesn’t help me decide what manner of beast “enlivens” the building. New search terms: James Lloyd, sculptor. Lloyd, who studied in Philadelphia, suggests in his bio that his artwork is inspired by the beauty and diversity of the natural world, human and cultural as well as animal and mineral. The sculpture in this neighborhood was his first public art commission. There is no particular statement given about my building’s sculpture, but I did learn that it is actually entitled Morphic Opening.

Like many of my college essays, this contemplation lacks a satisfying conclusion. I believe that I have done exactly what one is meant to do with non-figurative artwork: despite the much-maligned aesthetic of my built environment, I’ve spent a few hours on a Friday afternoon pleasurably contemplating its appearance without purpose. I don’t know how I will feel about the beige cubes within cubes after another four months or (knock wood) four years, but I am optimistic that the mostly relaxed and intellectually stimulating social environment will elevate my outlook more than the rain-dampened concrete will dispirit it.

I look forward to my next occasion to give directions to my building. I will tell visiting friends to look for the morphic opening.