Your Horoscope in the Marioverse

Reader, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just say it: until last weekend, I had never played any of the games in Nintendo’s best-selling, wildly popular, familiar-even-to-laypersons series Mario Kart. I just didn’t know what I was missing until I went to visit some friends who live in the suburbs with their adorable children, one of whom is old enough to enjoy the bright, whimsical racing game but young enough not to care about winning.

I care a little more about winning and managed to finish 2nd once, but the surprising topography of the third and fourth rounds threw me off… literally. “Thanks, Lakitu,” I sighed on one occasion, as the bespectacled turtle and his hovercloud lifted me back onto the track. “Or whatever your name is.”
“I think that is his name,” a friend replied. “But I’m not sure how you remembered that.”

I was embarrassed to admit that I had not summoned the name Lakitu from the depths of decades-old memories of playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System. I remembered Lakitu for the same reason I remember anything: research and writing. In 2011, I researched and wrote this bit of fluff that has never been posted anywhere but Facebook until today. But I enjoyed revisiting the Marioverse–I especially liked racing in the Thwomp Palace, as I feel a kinship with the unsubtle Thwomps–so please enjoy this homage to two of my childhood pastimes, video games and astrology.

The Bob-omb
March 20 – April 20
You are strong-willed and spontaneous, but hot-headed – when angry, you’re quick to blow up!  But under the right circumstances you can be a good friend, and have been known to help others bust through obstacles.

April 20 – May 21
Like a bull in a china shop, you are not known for your subtlety.  You’ll keep stomping the same path whether or not it helps you squash your target.  On the other hand, your stubbornness and strength makes you extremely hard to kill.

The Brothers
May 21 – June 21
Duality is the best-known attribute of your sign.  To others, it can seem like you’ve got two different personalities: half leader and half sidekick; half outgoing superstar and half support team.  But you know that’s what it takes to get a job done, whether that means protecting the homeland or doing home repairs.

The Koopa
June 21 – July 23
You are very invested in homelife – so much so that you carry yours on your back!  Sometimes you need to hide your feelings or retreat into your shell, and the people in your life should let you: then you’re happy to give a friend a leg up, or help open doors.

The King Koopa
July 23 – August 23
Far more outgoing and go-getting than your co-species sign, you’re a natural born leader and determined to stay that way.  You may have a bit of a reputation for being an asshole, but you can too play games with others – tennis, anyone? Go-karts?
But you do play to win.

The Princess
August 23 – September 23
You’re a smart cookie, curious and analytical. You can be a good teammate, but you aren’t always given the chance.  You can come off as aloof: to the people who try to get close to you, it seems like you’re always in another castle.

The Toadstool
September 23 – October 23
In your case, low and slow wins the race.  You’re no high jumper, nor are you inclined to fame and flashiness.  But your strength and stability help you to ensure that justice is done.

October 23 – November 22
You are secretive, preferring to hide your true self.  To others, you seem argumentative and prickly… maybe even Spiny?  But haters gonna hate: they’re on the ground, and you’re floating safely up above them.

The Bullet
November 22 – December 22
Like other fire signs, you can have an explosive personality; what distinguishes you is your single-minded focus.  When you’ve got your sights set on a target, you pursue it with intensity and impatience.

The Dinosaur
December 22 – January 20
You’re not one to get in a fight, but you are a practical and intuitive ally for your friends that do.  In fact, your tendency to take on other people’s problems may lead some to see you as a beast of burden. . . but you are charismatic and competent enough to be the star of your own show.

The Cute Cactus
January 20 – February 19
On the surface, you’re unassuming, easygoing, even adorable.  You’re usually not in a rush, and not aggressive.  But like most cacti, you’re fiercely protective; if anyone wants to get through you, they’ll have to take you down piece by piece.

The Cheep-Cheep
February 19 – March 20
Like most water creatures, you’re neither gregarious or aggressive; normally, you’re willing to go with the flow.  But you’re tougher than you look, and can swim right out of lava if you need to.


Reading Roundup: November 2018

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. First, a story. At the beginning of the month I went on a hike with a dear friend. We ambled and looked at trees and ate pretzels and decided unanimously that one glorious trek up a low autumnal hill was enough for one day, and so we went to browse at a suburban Barnes and Noble. I went immediately to the J shelf in fiction and was surprised to see no copies of The Haunting of Hill House, so we went to the info desk to ask. “Oh gosh,” said the woman at the counter, “We definitely have it, and it is definitely not where it is supposed to be. Let me try to remember.” Then, looking warily at me: “Have you read any Shirley Jackson before?” Yes, I told her, I recently finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her face creased into an all-over smile, and we both exclaimed about the joy of reading that book. “Okay, I remembered,” she said, and led me to the best-seller section up front. Chatting merrily to me about what she treasured in The Haunting of Hill House, her hand hovered over the newly reprinted edition (“now on Netflix!” with the lower half of a beautiful, melancholy woman’s face) before she handed me the classic Penguin edition next to it. I told her that she had made a good choice for me. I enjoyed that shared moment of bookish joy.

Like Castle, Hill House is alternately cozy and spooky. One minute its intrepid visitors are flirting and planning a picnic, and the next minute there is screaming–you know how it is. I wrote a little more about Hill House while writing about my own weird residence.

The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin. My Amazon First Read for November. This book is written in a very colloquial, YA-y voice that is not my usual jam, so it took me a few chapters to fall into step with it. Then, suddenly, I didn’t want to put it down. Narrator MG’s elaborately curated Quirky Gal vibe gives way to a love letter to geekdom, a breathless crush, an opening longing for female friendships. Not only does all this vulnerability make her more likeable–not that likeable is a requirement!–but her desire for connection helps the plot pick up speed and weight. It’s a frothy delight of a read, and–with due warning about the straight girl’s “insider” views of drag queen culture–I think some of my nerdy friends would enjoy the ride.

Galatea by Madeline Miller. I picked up this short read to get acquainted with the author, whose retellings of classical tales have been getting positive attention. On second thought, I’m not sure a Kindle Single is the best way to get to know a writer’s voice. But I did appreciate this reimagining of the Pygmalion myth, told from the perspective of the statue who finds herself magicked into being and simultaneously made a wife, mother, and prisoner.

Waiting by Ha Jin. At first, I was captivated by the book’s detailed rendering of its settings. Wherever the main characters go, whoever they speak with, the narrator trains a wide-angle lens on their scenery and makes note of what plants grow there, where the ambient sounds come from, whether there are ducks. The effect is to slow the pace of the story almost to a crawl–which is appropriate, given its title and decades-long timespan–but it was also pleasantly evocative, like experiencing the storytelling through little watercolor paintings. The setting is China after the Cultural Revolution; time moves very slowly in the rural village where one main character is from, and barely much faster in the dreary routine at the army hospital. Toward the end, the pacing began to grate on me as it grated on its characters. At one point I realized that the experience was similar to reading Anna Karenina: once the romance and urgency of the affair has given way to the unbearable everydayness of social shunning, it becomes a different reading experience. I have no doubt that the resemblance is intentional–Anna Karenina is mentioned by name several times when characters discuss books, although the Russian novel’s status is somewhat questionable in their era and the characters don’t go into depth on their thoughts or feelings about it.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. A quick aside. With some 30 under 30 list or another recently circulated, my social media feeds have been blowing up with the usual counterarguments: this famous author didn’t publish until they were x years old; that famous book was rejected by y publishers before it became a bestseller; etc. All good points! The most compelling response I’ve seen is this lovely Tumblr post enumerating all the years Terry Pratchett spent writing as a journalist and novelist before he penned his most beloved books. Discworld is not my bag–I’ve read one, maybe two of the novels–but it’s clear the man knew what he was about, and it softens my crusty post-academic heart to think of writing as a practice, of years spent writing commercially as just another way of developing a voice, of all my seemingly pointless blurbs and blogs sharpening me like a pencil.

This was very much on my mind as I finished Fates and Furies, a glossy, sweeping saga of a book that opens up two-thirds of the way through and expels a second, darker book, both dripping with flowery descriptions and ornamental set pieces. It’s ambitious and over the top and should not work, but it works and I couldn’t put it down. But I delayed reading this book for a long time because I deeply disliked the author’s first novel, which read like it was published too soon after an MFA program and would have benefited from languishing in a drawer for a few more years. But by Fates, a third novel, the author seems to have settled into her own voice, which is intimate and conversational, and while the story has its familiar themes (the life-after-college, the great-woman-behind-every-great-man) it is also surprising, weird, and great fun to read.

Elsewhere on the Internet

When I was skimming over my Twitter likes and retweets for last month’s roundup, I somehow skipped over this Buzzfeed reflection on Practical Magic, which is 20 years old this year. This was an error and a crime, because the article is beautifully written, has some stunning .gifs from the film, and of course it is extremely relevant to my interests. Only last year I read Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her earlier novel in which you find out more about the romantic tragedies that befell Aunts Jet and Frances (and Uncle Vincent, whose story only sort of explains why no one thought to mention him in the first book). I rewatched Practical Magic around the same time, and it remains an absolute delight: romance, revenge, sisterhood, mysterious and beautiful visual effects, everything you could want in a witchy film. It does surpass either book in terms of telling a good, tight story. On the other hand, the Magic books explore the themes of how trauma and power can travel through generations of a family–something a film doesn’t really have time to do–and it’s good sexy fun in any case, so I’m not not recommending a reread if you’re missing October’s witchy vibes.

Monique Truong, who wrote one of my favorite books of all time (The Book of Salt), was asked to write an essay to accompany travel photographs taken by museum curators. She wrote this, which the museum thought did not represent their curators in a positive light, so she published it elsewhere, and oh man is it gorgeously written and scathingly critical.

It is occasionally my duty to write pithy taglines–or at the very least, clickworthy email headers–and I do enjoy it, although I don’t believe it is my greatest talent. (As you know, my professional experience favors titles that tell you want they are!) I did like reading a little more about writing punchy copy from the lady who charges $960/hour for Instagram quotes and other services.

A celebration of Elizabeth Gaskell and female friendships? I’m already there.

I don’t like to give even indirect clicks to white male author intolerance, but non-intolerant white male author Chuck Wendig does such a delightful Twitter takedown of Ten Rules for Novelists that it’s well worth the scroll.

The house with a will of its own

In August, I moved to a new apartment. My old place was pleasant enough and roomy enough, with an open undivided space for the kitchen and sitting room; living right on Broad Street made for easy transportation and entertaining views of street shenanigans from my third-floor window. I didn’t want to lose its comforts, but I longed for an outdoor space to grow plants and read in the sun. I hoped to have a separate room for guests to sleep, to partition the spaces where I sleep and cook and play, and to welcome my aging relatives with fewer steps to climb.

The place that answered these needs, as it turns out, is a rather odd apartment. It is one section of a large house on the corner of a wide road (by South Philly standards) and a small narrow street; perhaps the building was once a storefront or a rambling family home. Now it is divided into four residences, although I cannot visualize how the four fit together. It’s not the usual one-unit-per-floor layout; my own unit is like a slice cut out of a layer cake, a stack of two floors and a finished basement. The layer cake analogy isn’t quite right either; as the unit seems to be pieced together out of odd shapes and surprising dimensions. For example, when I measured the windows for curtains, I found that no two windows have precisely the same height and width, and some sit further back on their tiled sills. It’s as though they were not intended to go together.

Having recently discovered the sinister pleasures of Shirley Jackson, I’ve been reading The Haunting of Hill House. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also been ready to jump out of my skin when things go bump in the night. One stormy night this month, the wind knocked over one of the plastic tubs that transported chrysanthemums to my patio planters. At least, I choose to believe that it was a flowerpot, tumbled about by wind, which made a pattern of three knocks outside my bedroom as I lay shivering under my quilt. I glanced at my unbothered cat, who was sleeping soundly next to my chest, and decided not to investigate further.


“Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around?… Every angle”—and [Doctor Montague] gestured toward the doorway—”every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind.”

In college, I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a book about finding your own rhythm amidst the oppressive thrum of a big city. By the end of the book, the main characters “have arranged their furnishings in a way that might not remind anybody of the rooms in Modern Homemaker but it suits the habits of the body, the way a person walks from one room to another without bumping into anything, and what he wants to do when he sits down.” The image captivated me, as I consider myself talented at arranging small spaces to suit my habits. As a freshman, I persuaded my roommate to depart from the standard dorm room arrangement—twin beds, desks, and dressers in symmetrical formation—and position our furniture at perpendicular angles, which opened up a welcoming space for our new friends and floormates to sit. In my first apartment in Philadelphia, a small overheated square unit, I arranged my few belongings to form four discrete sections for my four primary occupations: cooking, sleeping, studying, unwinding with Netflix DVDs and Morrowind.

I can’t exercise such discretion in my new apartment, where there are few configurations that will accommodate bulky furniture like my bed, my 6×6 foot bookcase (which I ended up donating), or the enormous dresser that also served as my TV stand and bedside table in my old studio. The rooms are not laid out on a grid: my bedroom and the guest room each have six walls of varying widths and angles. Radiators and support beams jut out irregularly from the uneven walls; several full- and half-walls are covered in tile, precluding any wall art or hanging shelves or electrical outlets. The walls that can be penetrated aren’t quite at right angles: the floor slopes, or the ceiling, or both.

Ideally, I would arrange a clearer path from the stair to the second-floor patio; ideally, I would position the dining table near an outlet so that I could work on my laptop there. Instead, the furniture remains more or less where it was placed by the movers, and I pilot myself around it with hardly any thought.


“Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”
They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.
“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off center.”

There is a step up from the kitchen to the sitting room; I’ve marked it with pale green duct tape, but it still catches the unwary who don’t realize they have to step down. On the staircase to the second floor, the top and bottom steps are a little taller than the others. The staircase into the basement is a spiral. I’ve gotten accustomed to moving up and down them; I don’t always remember to warn guests to watch their step.


“Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole. Theodora cannot see the tower from her bedroom window because the tower actually stands at the corner of the house. From Theodora’s bedroom window it is completely invisible, although from here it seems to be directly outside her room…. It is”—and his voice was saddened—”a masterpiece of architectural misdirection.”

When I visited my mom in September, I drew a floor plan from memory to help us both understand where I might have room for the additional furniture she wished to bestow on me. As I sketched out the lines, I realized with relief that my basement is not directly underneath the first floor of my unit. When I returned home, I walked up and down the spiral stair a few times, turning my head like a dancer to mark the location of the sitting room window and the tiled wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I no longer freeze and turn the television volume down when, as I settle in my underground den, I hear sidewalk conversations and doors opening as clearly as if they are in my own home. What a relief to know it is just the neighbors coming and going!

There is a door in my basement, on the wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I’ve never opened it; I was told my front door key would fit the lock, but it doesn’t. One of the movers joked that he wouldn’t live in an apartment with a mysterious knobless door in the basement. I believe that, as the realtor says, there is only a water heater behind the door. I keep the extra seating for guests in front of it.

I live in the outermost unit, so I am still not sure what, if anything, is underneath my first floor.

Luke came, hesitated in the cold spot, and then moved quickly to get out of it, and Eleanor, following, felt with incredulity the piercing cold that struck her between one step and the next; it was like passing through a wall of ice, she thought, and asked the doctor, “What is it?”
The doctor was patting his hands together with delight…. “The heart of the house.”

My new apartment stayed cool throughout the humidity-drenched heat of August and September. Now that the temperatures have dipped into the thirties and forties, I find that the unit holds warmth just as well, even in the basement. The chilly exceptions are the mudroom—right by the front door and thankfully isolated from the rest of the unit by a second door to the kitchen—and, inexplicably, the trapezoid closet in my bedroom, although the bedroom itself is quite cozy.


“What happens when you go back to a real house?” Eleanor asked. “I mean—a—well—a real house?”
“It must be like coming off shipboard,” Luke said.”

In my second apartment in Philadelphia, all the electrical outlets and light switches were installed upside-down: the switches said NO instead of ON. In my last apartment, a bird appeared on my pillow one morning after I’d spent the weekend with all the windows and doors closed against a snowstorm. In every apartment I’ve lived in after the tiny studio, the hot and cold taps are reversed, so I instinctively feel for the temperature of water from a tap no matter what sink I’m using.

“It must certainly affect people in some way,” the doctor said. “We have grown to trust blindly in our senses of balance and reason, and I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable of patterns against all evidence that it was leaning sideways.”

In The Haunting of Hill House, the erratic lines and obscure patterns of the haunted mansion suggest malice, pathways for an antagonistic force to threaten its visitors. It’s delightfully spooky until it becomes violent and dangerous.

But suppose you don’t fight wildly against irregularity? Suppose you, like the doctor’s wife, embrace the unfamiliar? She may be intended to be a comic figure, but of all the inhabitants of Hill House, her brisk familiarity with the unknown made the troubled house almost… welcoming.

“The library?” [said Mrs Montague.] “I think it might do. Books are frequently very good carriers, you know. Materializations are often best produced in rooms where there are books. I cannot think of any time when materialization was in any way hampered by the presence of books. I suppose the library has been dusted?”

[All block quotes are from the Penguin Classics edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.]

Anise and the inner life of our animal companions

The Saturday before last, when I returned to my apartment after a morning hike, I saw that my cat’s beloved stuffed poodle had been placed prominently on their cardboard scratchpad. I smiled: there is a sweetness to witnessing the evidence of my pets’ unseen movements while I’m away. Then I realized with a start that I had not seen this particular toy move in nearly a month. Since the beginning of October, the poodle had been languishing under the bed–where I placed it myself, hoping to comfort Anise while she was sick.

To explain why the wandering poodle is such a big deal, I will need to explain more about Anise. One of a pair of sisters I adopted shortly after moving to Philadelphia thirteen years ago, Anise has little of the archetypal aloofness ascribed to her species. She cares very much what her human companions think of her. When I have friends over, she presents herself as soon as the situation passes a security check known only to herself (my guess would be “fewer than ten people, most of whom are seated”) and dutifully walks from guest to guest, lightly rubbing a few legs on her rounds. Despite her age and cobby build, she is capable of leaping across substantial distances–and she seems to time these jumps so that they happen in the sightline of my gentleman friend, who always makes a show of being impressed. She once paraded back and forth in front of my bathroom door while a plumber repaired the taps, prompting him to croon “There’s that pretty cat! There’s the pretty cat with the short legs!” on her third or fourth pass. Once, when I had a neighbor and a friend over to watch a movie, she became smitten with the friend and curled up next to him on the couch. When my neighbor (who takes care of the cats when I’m away) pretended to take offense, Anise got up and repositioned herself next to her hip, accepting pats from the hand that sometimes feeds her–but she continued to gaze back at her new crush with enormous saucer eyes. Anise loves and wants to be loved; she understands manners and wants you to think well of her.

She’s *technically* not on the table, so.

Aside from the occasional use of silly nicknames and made-up songs, I mostly talk to Anise like a person. The reason for this is that she gives the appearance of listening like a person. “I would prefer that you didn’t do that,” I’ll say to her as she grooms my arm, and she’ll look up with her eyes round and glistening, and she’ll go back to cleaning her fur for a few beats until she comes back to my arm again. “Please think about what you’re about to do,” I’ll say to her as she balances on the arm of my couch, so she fussily settles herself into the shape of breadloaf and waits until my gentleman and I finish our dinner. When we set our empty plates aside, she trots merrily across our laps and wedges herself between us with the satisfaction of the righteous.

Even without meowing–this is an aesthetic choice, she can meow but prefers not to–Anise is fairly proficient at communicating her own wishes and preferences. Most of her expressions are extremely legible, from the pointed stares to soulful gazes. The exception to this expressive clarity is her poodle ritual. The poodle is a plush toy about twice the size of her head; when she carries it, she has to lift her head high so that it doesn’t drag on the ground. As she carries it from one room to another, my quiet cat yodels around her mouthful of stuffing. The sound reminds me of a mother cat calling her kittens, but she doesn’t otherwise coddle the poodle; it is dropped unceremoniously as soon as she gets where she is going. It isn’t a toy, either–it never gets chased or kicked around like one of the fake mice favored by her sister. (Ascher doesn’t touch the poodle, as it happens.) Infrequently, the poodle makes a symbolic appearance: facedown in an empty food dish, dropped into my luggage before a trip, tucked under the blanket when I wake up from a bad dream. But most of the time, Anise simply carries the poodle from one room into another, usually from an empty room into the room where I’m sleeping or watching TV, usually around bedtime, always calling her haunting muffled cry.

She’s been doing this for more than a decade, but I never caught it on film until recently–our new spiral stair slows down the procession enough for me to get my phone ready.

I’ve never been able to figure out what the poodle means to her. I’m not sure what it means for something to have meaning to a cat. But more than any of her other pleasant social behaviors, it is the poodle ritual that makes Anise seem more like a person than a creature to me. There is a kernel of her feline mind that is utterly inexplicable and unknowable, although it has manifested in a consistent behavioral pattern several times a week for more than a decade. And because it doesn’t influence or derail the daily activities of our comfortable household, I have never unraveled it. Perhaps much of my life looks the same way, to her.

Some of my friends asked me how I knew that Anise was sick, since it’s common for cats to hide their illness. Anise did not alter most of her little routines. She still wanted to sleep close to my heart, but it took her longer to make her way to bed after I turned out the lights. She still wanted to eat breakfast and dinner, but picked at her food and struggled to keep it down. She has always liked to be close, but she clung to me and her sister, burying her face against whoever was nearest. The rest of the time, she slept under the bed. I placed the poodle underneath, and a bowl of water just beside it. The water needed to be replaced daily, sometimes twice a day. The poodle didn’t move.

She had pancreatitis, which in cats is fairly treatable if you catch it soon enough, but it often indicates another issue. In our case, the other issue turned out to be inflammatory bowel disease, which also has a promising prognosis. It is now almost six weeks since I first took her to the vet, and almost two weeks since she started her steroid treatment (which she doesn’t care for, and she’ll run me a merry chase if I’m not sneaky enough). She wants to eat everything–especially whatever I am eating–and has taken to lingering in windowsills where she can get a good look at my plate. She curls up in her place by my heart as I fall asleep; she finds her way back before I’m fully awake, but in the dreamy window between my alarms I hear her chattering at the birds outside my window. And she marches the poodle up and down our spiral stair on a schedule known only to herself, bringing it wherever she feels it is needed most.

Reading Roundup: October 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I was only partway through this book at my last monthly roundup, and I am happy to report that, like life, this book was exponentially more enjoyable after its characters got out of puberty. Their stories are still a little cruel, and taut with the kind of anxieties I don’t really like to think about, but Laurence and Patricia grow from beleaguered children into adults worth reading about. Perhaps it’s a better sell to say that this is not a character-driven book but a book driven by forces which take imaginative and unexpected turns. I see now why it is so beloved by women on my social feeds.

George by Alex Gino. This is a middle-grade book that my friend recently finished and recommended; I read it in one morning while I waited for his household to get up and start the day. It is a sweet and richly described story of a trans girl who yearns to be Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web, but her teachers and family don’t yet know she’s a girl. Even apart from the importance of having trans stories represented in fiction for young readers, this book has a really lovely depiction of friendship and shows a range of reactions from allies, bystanders, gatekeepers, and bullies that any kid might encounter as they try to express their best selves.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders. Okay, all right, I see it now. I was dubious after Lincoln at the Bardo but it turns out that Saunders is really sharp and witty in short stories. I think this must be partly because the short form lets you get away with leaving more unsaid: if the author never has to name what terrible memory weighs on Mikey or what actions take place in Room 6, those unmentioned horrors loom much more menacingly. And I do admire Saunders’ deft worldbuilding: without spelling out precisely where the characters are and what’s happening, he still creates vivid impressions of the lab where incarcerated criminals are subjected to pharmaceutical experiments or the Medieval Times-esque entertainment center with its own feudal system.

The Witch Elm by Tana French. So I tweeted this:

And I meant it! But then I read this review. And reader, I bought the book. I read it huddled under blankets during three of the coldest nights this month.

I’ve always admired the way Tana French gives inner life to antagonists: a woman who ghosts the protagonist of her first book becomes the speaker of her second; the rule-bending cop who pushes her too far narrates another book; his boorish nemesis is the main character of a sequel. When she takes the reins of a character who appears cold or hostile in an earlier book, they keep the mannerisms that make them so unpleasant, but in their own words they let you in a little deeper into the psychology behind their behavior. Every book is a master class in writing an unlikeable character that you end up rooting for anyway.

The main character of The Witch Elm is new to French’s fictional universe and doesn’t initially know who he has antagonized, but the reader catches glimpses from other characters who find him arrogant, oblivious, or even cruel. There are clear parallels to the sort of men who have been getting a lot of airtime in our culture currently: men who believe in the justice system even though they themselves are rarely held to account, men who defend other men because they have not seen evidence of toxic masculinity with their own eyes. (This timeliness, and more mentions than usual of texts and social media, make this novel feel more contemporary than her others–but don’t worry, time is just as much out of joint here as in the spooky suburban woods or derelict Broken Harbor.) It’s very satisfying to watch what French does with the psychology of this willful ignorance, and particularly satisfying to read her narrate a crime novel from the perspective of a suspect, who finds himself in the hands of her cool, calculating Murder Squad detectives.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. God, this book! It’s so good! It’s so weird! It’s all the mannerly fallen-from-fortune rich-people eccentricity I loved in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, with the nature worship cranked up to eleven, plus spookiness and murder.

Now I’m kind of mad because during all the legwork I did to piece together my comprehensive exam reading lists–which were admittedly light on mid-century writers but nonetheless included some of Jackson’s contemporaries like Marge Piercy and Jean Stafford–at no point did any professor, student, or previously approved list suggest that I should be including Shirley Jackson on my comps. And geez, the food scenes in this book! I tread lightly on the topic of poison in my dissertation but I could conceivably have dedicated a whole chapter to this story.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I have not played Fallout 4, but I’ve played enough Bethesda games that I still appreciated the venomous disdain with which this reviewer assesses the game’s dialogue mechanics. (Ay, I love Skyrim, but the writing makes Mass Effect: Andromeda look good!) But as a completionist and inveterate barrel-sweeper, I reveled most in the detailed description of picking up every last piece of junk from containers and corpses, until you pass your weight maximum and have to creep slowly toward a merchant or receptacle. “You can dress up as whoever you want in Fallout 4,” says the reviewer, “but you can only role-play as the trashman.”

I moved fully ten weeks ago and still feel wounded/vindicated by this parody game review which critiques the laborious process of moving apartments. I have only one bone to pick: the reviewer suggests that hiring movers is a kind of cheat that allows the moving game “to pretty much play itself.” This is only partly true! Hiring movers does greatly reduce overall gameplay hours, calculates a safer and more intuitive solution to Box Tetris, and eliminates the driving section of the game (which is not legal for me to play). For me, that makes it worth not only the cost of hired labor but the additional in-game currency of boxes and tape (as hired movers prefer not to move boxes that are only partially closed or items that have been haphazardly wrapped in blankets). However, this extends the length and complexity of the Packing and Moving In portions of the game, not to mention the time it takes to recoup your sunk costs. I’m not suggesting it’s a completely even trade-off, but it’s something to consider: the moving game sucks no matter how you play it.

Earlier this month, Tor offered a free ebook edition of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a novella that I deeply enjoyed and frequently recommend. That promotion is over, but I made a pitch to my Facebook friends for Tor’s eBook of the Month Club, and now I make it to you: I really hate subscribing to things but I really love Tor’s free eBooks. That’s how I got All the Birds in the Sky last month, Every Heart a Doorway last year, and a couple of other novellas that I haven’t finished yet but have been enjoying. You don’t have to download everything, just what you like; you do get promo emails from Tor but they are not frequent and do not annoy me; and let me emphasize that the books–which sometimes include Tor’s award-winners or best-sellers–are FREE.

Speaking of Ballad, and therefore speaking of Lovecraft: I picked up an anthology of Lovecraft’s stories years ago for my comp exams, but I gave up trying to read them because, hey, it turns out that racism is very boring and off-putting! (Don’t worry, no doctoral aspirant reads every book on their comp exam list.) Even longer ago, I tried to play a Cthulu-inspired video game on my first-generation Xbox, but I remember almost nothing about it–also boring. (Possibly also racist; I cannot say, as I didn’t play very long.) This game reviewer also finds video game adaptation of Lovecraft to be very boring and off-putting. Her suggestion is to find other ways to evoke eerieness and alien horror. I agree, but counterpoint, there is also an interesting, readable way to do Lovecraftian horror: Ballad creates a weird, scary, smart story by placing the eldritch horrors alongside the earthly, entirely too everyday horrors of racist violence.

I do not know if anyone who reads my blog needs a primer or a recap of #MeToo in the literary world. But if you’d like a reading list of books and essays that explore female subjectivity (such as Asymmetry, discussed here) or if, like me, you have read many of those books, you may enjoy seeing them appear in this big-picture summary in the New Yorker.

This is sort of a review of a new fantasy book I haven’t read, called The Poppy War, and if you do not wish to read spoilers for the book you should not click that link. If you don’t care, you may like the affectionate but critical romp through novels of the past fifty years that feature magical boarding schools and their like.

Wow wow wow–Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (one of my favorite reads last year) is being made into a TV series?!

The Offing published an appointment between the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and an analyst, pretty much designed to be Relevant To My Interests.


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.