Reading Roundup: March/April 2018

In March, my gentleman showed me a photo that his friend posted to Instagram: a pile of Elena Ferrante books, with the comment “In a committed relationship.” Suddenly, something clicked. This must be the same reason I found myself unable to get into any new books in March. I had a stack of books in my to-read pile–used books and ARCs that I’d gotten excited about after a quick skim–but every time I’d pick one up, I’d read a chapter or two before returning it to my tote with a sigh and opening Twitter instead.  Twitter is a delightful way to spend a commute, but I was starting to feel beleaguered by reader’s block. It appears that the problem was that I was “it’s complicated” with the translations of Elena Ferrante’s novels, and it was difficult to transition to normal books after spending the end of February with such dense, intricate, captivating prose.

The cure, surprisingly, was a book that I thought was going to be terrible but wasn’t. Before I even finished that palate cleanser, I’d started a novella on my Kindle (strictly before-bed reading) and bought three more novels when I only intended to acquire a nice notebook at Barnes & Noble. I’m back in business. Let’s proceed.

Meaty, by Samantha Irby. This is a re-release of the bitches gotta eat blogger’s collection of personal essays. I follow many fans of the blog and had long been meaning to pick up this collection, which is every bit as hilarious and heart-breaking as I’d been told. Content note, though. This book really drives home that the human body is not a temple but a gross and leaky meatsack. The body-conscious sections of the book are very funny, and quite probably cathartic for some readers; for me in my current state of mind, they led to a whirl on the self-hatred spiral.

The Objects of her Affection, by Sonya Cobb. I picked up this novel at a used bookstore because its back cover name-checked the Philadelphia Museum of Art (although, perplexingly, the museum is thinly veiled as the Pennsylvania Museum of Art throughout the book). The first few pages sounded…. unpromising, but I’d read worse writing for my previous side hustle (see last fall’s blind items) and figured I could power through for the museum insider lulz.

I did not have to power through. This book is a delight. The prose is simple, direct, and effectively gets you from point A (web developer/devoted wife with young children) to point B (silver thief?!). I enjoyed the protagonist’s ambles through Fairmount and the secret back tunnels of the art museum; having been there, I could see it. And I always do love an art heist (c.f. Unbecoming). I’m really hoping some of my former PMA coworkers give this book a try; the book includes a lengthy disclaimer that a theft like this would never happen, and I’d love to see a registrar’s take.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle. I love recommending LaValle’s writing to fans of horror and fantasy. Literally just last weekend at a party–I’m real fun at parties–I explained to some lit-bros who teach Lovecraft why they should instead teach The Ballad of Black Tom (previously listed in Books I Love). Like Ballad, The Changeling revisits an old tale of horror–or in this case, an amalgamation of old tales that feature monstrous mothers and children–but introduces those primal fears to our contemporary urban fears. Apollo and Emma grapple with the supernatural and cryptozoological, and these scenes are suspenseful and as scary as I personally can handle. But almost as frightening are the horrors of a young marriage strained by the eldritch demands of a newborn and the creeping intrusions of social and digital technology. One detail I keep thinking about is the image (repeated a few times) of late night text messages: a phone blinking on like an eye in the darkness while you sleep.

This recommendation is in no way influenced by the really nice interaction I had with the author on Twitter recently.

The Trespasser by Tana French. At lunch with some coworkers, I tried to explain why I love the Dublin Murder Squad books so much: they’re gritty, detailed, and really smart. “Are they gory?” asked one colleague hesitantly; she’s more of a cozy mysteries girl. But they really aren’t. In fact, there’s usually only one murder, it usually isn’t very bloody, and the rest of the book is mainly forensic analysis with a heaping helping of the first-person narrator dealing with their own psychological garbage. I think that sums it up: reading these books is like watching a really good TV procedural with a brilliant but flawed detective, like The Fall, but with exponentially more internal monologue. My jam.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. I loved Novik’s Uprooted. She’s written other books but I am shy about starting new series, so I was happy to see another standalone novel on the ARC table. It took me a little longer to get into this one, perhaps because it begins by alternating irregularly between two narrators and it took me some time to get to know them. The book gradually adds four more narrators to the mix, but by that time I was reading at a steady clip and had no trouble following along, not to mention caring. It’s a light, accessible read, and particularly fun during those last frosty gasps in April (one major conflict of the story is a mysteriously ongoing winter). Like Uprooted, this novel is crammed full of vivid, magical, vaguely Eastern European imagery–actually, less vague in Spinning Silver, as the capital city’s Jewish ghetto plays an important role.

The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg. A confession: except for a few memorable revisions of stories I loved as a child, like The Velveteen Rabbit and The Adventures of Frog and Toad, I skipped over most of the Children’s Stories Made Horrific published on the-toast.net. I think I found them not so much deliciously chilling as plain horrifying. Perhaps more so when they don’t divert much from the source material, as was the case for Frog and Toad–I simply didn’t remember the horrifying dynamic between the two “friends,” but it’s all there, so now I have to question everything about my childhood. Still, I am a Toast stan, and I’ve been in the mood for fantasy fiction, and the paperback is a thing of beauty with deckled edges, so here we are.

Much of the early press for this collection has been tied to the author coming out post-publication as Daniel Mallory Ortberg, leading interviewers to focus on the gender dynamics in the stories. And this is interesting, but while the stories thwart fairytale norms for who gets to be a daughter or husband or princess, gender doesn’t drive the conflict in most of them. Relationships do–specifically, horrifying relationships like Frog and Toad, whose unhappy friendship doesn’t headline its own tale but is recognizably adapted into new stories that draw on multiple sources. In these “Tales of Everyday Horror,” the villains are self-proclaimed caring friends and relatives whose love takes the form of pain, control, imprisonment, and icy detachment. Again: not deliciously chilling, but certainly horrifying. The book sent me into a sullen reflection on my own friendships for a few days; that passed, but weeks later I still replay some of the stories in my mind.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. Yes, at the end of the month I returned to my true love–the way the main character Elena keeps returning to the Neapolitan neighborhood where she grew up, which is both a deep wound and a deep well for her literary creativity. Every novel in this series is astonishing in its detail and human observation, but The Story of the Lost Child is on another level: if you’ve followed Elena and Lila since their childhood, it’s cruel but cathartic to watch them mature and evolve and yet remain completely themselves. Elena in particular comes to regret or reconsider many the choices she made in past novels, and yet somehow falls on the same swords and tells herself the same stories, though I believe her less. I wonder if I will feel the same way when I reach Elena’s age at the end of the novel; I think, like Middlemarch, that this is “a book for grown-up people” and that my own response to it may be subject to change (or cycles, maybe, as it is a book about people going in circles).

I tried to explain the appeal of this series to my gentleman when he mentioned his friend’s literary relationship status. Before I read them, I assumed these books were going to be soft and feminine: they have perfectly awful covers rendered in dreamy pastels, and reviews often focus on their powerful depiction of female friendship. But the friendship is brutal. It includes long periods of silence or neglect which come as a relief because Lila and Elena can be very cruel to one another; yet when they reconnect it is also a relief because their need for one another is so deep. Their neighborhood is brutal. Cold War Italy is brutal. The treatment of women, whether in Elena’s rough childhood home or among the moneyed intelligentsia she marries into, is brutal. Perhaps less brutal, but heart-piercing at my current age, are timeless domestic troubles such as the pain of caring for an aging and dying parent; the banality of love; the stress of a gifted child becoming a struggling adult, always competing with her past successes, both elevated by and disappointing to her hometown.

Anyway, this book was a gripping end to a series I’ve loved, but happily I’m at no risk of further writers’ block. I left my library-adjacent job and took with me a handful of ARCs as well as some books that were the gift of my former supervisor; there is a toppling pile on my kitchen table waiting to accompany me on commutes and weekend trips this summer.

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Gaming roundup: Is it spring or what?

Winter is hard. That’s my explanation for my recent obsession with mobile games.

Usually, mobile games are out of the question for me–my smartphone, now almost two years old, was a freebie and barely has enough memory for the apps I use for my job. Nonetheless, for about six months I squeezed in Heroes of Dragon Age, which gave me a way to revisit some of the characters I loved from the series, and to upgrade them and collect armor for them like a good completionist. To battle and level up, you spend points that regenerate over time, so I had a habit of playing a few rounds when I woke up and when I got home from work. I deleted it abruptly in October, unhappy with the time I was investing into it. (Besides, I wanted the space back; I could have HoDA or Lyft but not both.) But then December came, and I loaded up my Kindle with the following apps.

Sims Free Play. I didn’t keep this very long; even more so than HoDA, the gameplay is most satisfying when you log in often, add more Sims, and cultivate their respective professions and hobbies. Too tempting.

Monument Valley. A beautiful, beautiful puzzle game that delighted me with tactile and unexpected interactions. Take, for example, the Jewel Box level. You are presented with decorative cube. You can open the lid to the left, and a set of doors and stairs emerges as from a pop-up book . Close the lid, and open it to the right, and a different set of doors and stairs is revealed. Close that lid, then shimmy the body of the cube up so an entire castle is revealed inside, plus your tiny princess avatar. You direct her to exit through one of the dark doors, and she disappears. Spin the cube; each spin reveals a delicately hued interior, until you find the one where your princess waits for further direction. The game has the barest hint of a plot–all it needs, really–and all too few levels. I wish there were a hundred more of them.

The Room 1, 2, and 3. Although they are very different in aesthetics, I loved The Room for many of the same reasons I loved Monument Valley. In the first The Room, you are simply given an ornate box. By exploring its edges and panels for clever little switches, puzzles, and secrets, you can open up more and more of the box. In The Room 2, the puzzle is expanded to a whole room, but the charm of solving a clever locked box puzzle more or less remains. The Room 3 expands the puzzle to a whole puzzle tower…. which is too many rooms, The Room. But all three games are delightfully tactile like Monument Valley–not just tapping, but spinning and dragging and exploring–and the puzzles are pleasantly steampunk in aesthetic. If ever a bit of technology trended a hundred years ago–zootropes, phonographs, etc.–it’s in one of these games.

I Love Hue and 2046 are both timewasters of different stripes, but I love them both. It’s very satisfying to swipe cubes together in 2048, although the highest cube I’ve accumulated is two 1024s. (They were so far apart!) I Love Hue gives you a rainbow gradient jumbled up, and you slide the cubes around to find their correct position in the gradient. I am fairly good at it, so the game keeps praising me lavishly like Leslie Knope complimenting Ann Perkins: You beautiful rainbow! You beat the world average! Ideal for keeping the real world from pressing swiftly in during your Hulu commercial breaks.

Meanwhile, on the console I reverted mainly to comfort classics. My neighbor and I triumphantly finished Mass Effect 3, yelling when we saw our beloved Dante Shepherd possibly take a breath at the end. We returned to my neighbor’s old game of Dragon Age Inquisition, mainly cleaning up remaining tombs and wiping out the dragon population of Thedas until there was nothing to do but defeat Corypheus. We continued to collaborate on my replay of Life is Strange; we made some very different choices than my first playthrough, and as a result have had some completely different and wonderful scenes open up. We were very sad to see that one end!

I acquired some Xbox gift cards for the holidays, and while I’m mainly saving these for my future next gen console, I did indulge in a couple of fantasy games.

Faery. This game was a dollar, and totally worth it. You’re a fairy, obviously; you have to check out some different regions to fix disruptions in magical oak trees or whatever. All the quintessential RPG functions are there in at least a vestigial form: your party fights bad guys for loot; you level up and collect magical armor; you chat with townspeople and run their errands. You fly across landscapes that are quite lovely, and the music reminded me of Fable. It’s a peaceful game.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This game was vaunted as the collaboration between the wildly successful creators behind two bestselling games and a series of bestselling novels. I paid $5 for it, which in comparison to Faery is still a steal: there is easily ten or twenty times as much gameplay, loot, and NPC questing to do, and it is a very pretty game with some cool combat effects. Absolutely worth the investment, in terms of hours I spent thinking about my character build rather than my life. But while it’s a pretty good game, it’s not a great game, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. There is a sprawling map of ecologically varied regions, all beautifully and interestingly drawn, although lacking the sort of breathtaking views that made Skyrim special. These regions are populated with a host of NPCs with problems and plans that need your help, so there’s plenty to do, although not much to gain from doing them–becoming the leader of every single guild in the land nets you some permanent character bonuses, but no amazing loot or unique NPC interactions. The NPCs remind me a little of Fable’s citizens of Albion–cute and cookiecutter–but without the sass. Also like Fable, you can shape your skill tree to suit your gameplay rather than committing to a type at the beginning–the whole plot of the game is that your character’s destiny is wide open, and you can be or do whatever you want. But perhaps in gaming, as in writing, limitations would have inspired more engaging play. Except for an awkward phase toward the beginning, when my detection skills weren’t yet high enough to avoid traps and my HP not yet high enough to take the hit*, I was so powerful that I simply mowed my way through dungeon after dungeon. On a few occasions I even nodded off with the controller in hand.

When I beat the main quest, I tried to learn more about the game and its makers, and…. wow, is it ever a tragic story of bankruptcy and ruin. I am sorry to hear it. I would have liked to play another evolution of this game if it had a little more something.

*In one trap-laden temple, I died often enough to get concern trolled by a pop-up asking if I’d like to change the game’s difficulty to a lower level.

 

What now?

Last summer, I committed to playing the Xbox 360 games I’d acquired for free or cheap because I wanted to pay off my credit card debt before springing for a next gen console. Now I have the financial means to move on, and I’m still hesitating. We’ve spent a lot of time together; it’s hard to let go.

 

Initial report

Borderlands 2
Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1

Interim report

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 1 and 2
Dance Central 3
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Winter Update

Lego Star Wars: TCS
Tomb Raider (2013)
Borderlands
Sims 3
Life is Strange

 

Reading Roundup: January/February 2018

The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor. The final novella in the Okorafor’s Binti series (mentioned previously here and here). I was very excited to find out what happened to Binti and her jellyfishlike classmate Okwu, and I would have been thrilled even if the novella didn’t take some very unexpected and extraordinary turns. This series is so wonderfully imaginative and moving! I’ve seen some tweets suggesting that readers who loved the new Black Panther movie will love the Binti series: both depict a diverse, colorful, technologically advanced Africa that at the same time celebrates traditional garb and customs. (In the film, one of the Wakandan leaders appears to have her locs coated in the red pigment used by the Himba people of Namibia; this otjize paste is of vital importance to the plot of Binti.) But sci fi and fantasy readers should enjoy Okorafor’s prolific writing anyway: like Octavia Butler, her prose is accessible and vividly descriptive; like your favorite fantasy series, the characters appear to be sought out by strange forces that they master by seeking out communities of teachers and allies.

The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. This much-celebrated new translation was on sale for $3 on New Year’s Day, so I snapped it up. I cannot lie to you; I just reread The Odyssey last year when I was gearing up to read Ulysses by James Joyce, and in neither case did I find this epic poem an absorbing or unputdownable read.  However, what I do find endlessly fascinating is Wilson’s lengthy introduction explaining some of her choices in translation. On Twitter, she’ll go into a bit more detail comparing her translation to past translations; in this thread, for example, she is critical of the way past translators have characterized the Cyclops Polyphemos as a beast or savage, when the original word used for him is ander or man, same as the word used for Odysseus in the opening line (Wilson’s translation: “Tell me about a complicated man”). Reading about the translation process did help me appreciate, if not enjoy, the casual violence throughout this tale and the absolutely gruesome bloodbath when Odysseus returns to Ithaca.

I’d recommend a physical copy over an ebook; there are copious footnotes which I did not discover until the end.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You is one of my favorite reads of the last few years, but it took me a little longer to warm up to this one. While Everything unfolds from the perspective of a family who feels visibly and culturally Other in a small town, Fires takes you into two intertwined homes: one of outsiders as well as one of the well-to-do and aggressively normal families in one neighborhood, and the latter seems a little too broadly characterized at first. But at some point, the switch flipped for me: I was reading on a train, and then I arrived at my destination, and then I couldn’t wait to go to bed so I could finish the book under the covers in the wee hours of the morning.

The Likeness by Tana French. As is always the case with French’s murder mysteries, I devoured the book in two days and had related nightmares the following night.  My recent haiku still applies:
Give me a murder,
a troubled cop, a bent rule–
that’s a good story.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The last meeting of my Herman Melville class was mid-February, and one of my classmates brought brownies with little white powdered-sugar whales on them. I’m sorry the class is over, because I really enjoyed the journey: loved the humor, loved the descriptions of sailing and whaling, actually really enjoyed the cetology chapters. This is a book I will certainly re-read someday, and if it weren’t for the daunting pile of unread books on my table, I’d start again immediately.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. I read the first of the famous Neapolitan novels a year or two ago and, as I said then, they do live up to the hype. I knew I’d want to read on, but the opportunity didn’t seem to present itself until I was browsing my favorite used bookstore in Pittsburgh and found the next two novels in the series (plus The Likeness, noted above). I briefly considered revisiting the first novel to catch up to the cliffhanger ending, but decided to trust that the novel would get me up to speed as needed. (It did.) I started reading this 400+ page book over President’s Day weekend and finished it by Thursday; with Elena and Lila a little older and the stakes of their nonconformity much higher, I didn’t want to put the book down. Fortunately, I had the third close by.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I’m actually not finished with this novel yet, but I’m so close and it’s so much a continuation of the previous book that I can’t wait until the next post to talk about it. In addition to the very fine translation of what must be incredibly dense prose, this series offers a complex portrait of a friendship between two women, and it also feels urgently contemporary and relevant despite its setting in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. In this volume, the narrator’s roller coaster of feelings about her education, her writing, and her relationships is complicated by student protests and violent clashes with Fascists, and I’m turning the pages with fear and hunger to find out what happens to Elena and her unpredictable friend Lila in these tumultuous times.

Year of Gaming, winter report

For anyone who has been following the progress of Purple DadShep–my final playthrough of the entire Mass Effect trilogy accompanied by my friend and neighbor–we have responded to the events of Tuchanka and the Citadel by becoming staunchly Paragon (unless mercs and jerks are really getting on our nerves); those are two quests that really test your commitment to the middle road, and we came so close to losing two important characters that it felt like a natural turning point. Of course, we may have softened up after the Cerberus attack because we finally locked it down with Kaiden, and it was absolutely worth the slow burn across two and a half games. (“It does. It does feel right. After all this time.”) We’re so close to finishing ME3 and I’ll be a little sad when it’s all over. We even started playing another game to avoid that final stretch on Earth, although that wasn’t entirely ME3’s fault.

Completed

LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. It’s mildly tempting to try to unlock all the achievements for this one. Aside from collecting all the collectibles, most of the achievements relate to having specific characters fight one another–for example, I scored one when my default Qui Gon character accidentally started a brawl in the Cantina where all your minifigs hang out between episodes, and Qui Gon killed Darth Maul instead of the other way around. But I’m extremely uncomfortable typing about minifigs murdering each other, which kind of encapsulate my issues with the game.

Tomb Raider (2013). I started this years ago, but didn’t get very far for the same reason that appears in most reviews of this game: one grows weary of watching Lara die in graphic cutscenes. In the early stages, when I was still getting used to the controls, I watched her be crushed by rocks, have her throat torn out by a wolf, and get axed and throttled by the mysterious scary men who presence on the deserted island had not yet been explained.

But I’ve gotten better at playing games generally–multiple runs through ME and DA on increasingly difficulty levels had a payoff!–and as I got better at not dying, I had time to enjoy the beautifully crafted landscapes, tomb puzzles, and cinematic elements (including good voice acting). I think I spent about three evenings after work completing this game–it was like reading a suspenseful book, I didn’t want to put it down.

Incidentally, I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie, which has not gotten very positive attention so far. But I was astonished at how much of the trailer was drawn directly from the game: Lara’s opening scene leap from a sinking ship and her precarious walk across a wrecked plane are adapted visually verbatim. I’m fascinated by this media loop–gameplay is inspired by action movies, becomes an action movie based on the game–and I liked the game enough that I will go see this movie even if it’s terrible.

Borderlands (the first one). I didn’t really latch onto this game when I first played it–I seemed to be stuck in the Arid Badlands forever, I kept getting killed, and it wasn’t fun. But after I played and completed Borderlands 2, I wanted to spend some more time in that world. Which is weird, because it’s a lot more bloody and creepy and noisy than I usually prefer for my evening entertainment. But there’s something about the graphic style and gameplay that is very satisfying. I love discovering new areas and collecting cool weapons, I don’t know what to tell you. So I went back to Borderlands, and while I missed a few utilities and upgrades that were present in Borderlands 2, I really enjoyed uncovering (and occasionally being surprised by) the backstory of the characters and locations I first met in the sequel.

Sims 3. If you’re a long-time Sims aficionado like myself, the console version is probably not for you. There are many aspects of the PC game you can’t enjoy, like placing more than one family in your neighborhood, switching between families, editing town lots, and cheating. There’s very little the console version offers that’s new or different than the PC, except for the slightly annoying Karma points. And yet! I bought the game deeply on sale–violating my rule to not buy any new games this year–in a bout of retail therapy, and it was so soothing and nostalgic to go through the painstaking process of creating a person and laboriously leveling up their life. The game’s limitations slow it down, which is actually a way I always meant to play The Sims–up close, watching all the little surprising interactions between town NPCs and their tiny world–which is easily overlooked when you’re playing in God mode.

It still sucks that you can’t switch between houses; I made a family full of characters from The Good Place and gave them the worst traits (Neurotic, Inappropriate, Snob, etc.) and intended to watch them at a distance, but when you move a Sim out of a house on the console, what remains of their household just disappears.

Life is Strange. I enjoyed this so much that I almost immediately cajoled my neighbor into checking out the game so I could start a new playthrough with new choices. This is a stunning game: it’s visually very beautiful and unique, with its soft Square Enix style highlighting the gentle, otherwordly beauty of its sleepy coastal town and art college. The soundtrack is phenomenal; slightly older than its young students, the music adds layers of warmth, nostalgia, and melancholy. The protagonist, Max Caulfield, is a delight; she has all the sweetness and positivity of Dreamfall‘s Zoe Castillo, but also an appealing shyness and reflective self-awareness. I became very skeptical about halfway through, when it seemed that the plot was dipping into some very conventional and boring “pretty dead girl” stuff, but I was genuinely surprised by the twist and the game’s iron backbone in addressing those darker elements. And as I said, I wanted to return to this delicate world and try to treat it a little better, knowing what I know now.

Upcoming possibilities

Abyss Odyssey
Bayonetta
Beyond Good and Evil HD
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Contrast
Dishonored
Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Witcher 2

Recap

In which your narrator is attempting to play all the free games she’s downloaded on Xbox 360 before she treats herself to the next gen.

Initial report

Borderlands 2
Tales from the Borderlands, episode 1

Interim report

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 1 and 2
Dance Central 3
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

 

Books I Read and Loved in 2017

November/December was a little bit of a wash reading-wise. I trudged my way through two more books for my book reviewer side hustle, and continued to enjoy Moby-Dick but there’s so much of it! Then I downloaded Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and devoured it and felt alternately amazing and awful, like drinking too much whiskey and feeling really understood and then really sad. Then I remembered why I even read in first place: not for school anymore, not for work, not for money. For love.

So here are the books I loved this year–in haiku, because I blogged about most of them before.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Learn why so many
old tales are of woman’s pain;
live anyway. Love too.

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Roses, romance, rare
books, things stolen or yearned for,
and their high, high cost.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
Who knew that sweat, blood,
sex, beauty, intensity
could become sweetness.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Wars are not only
fought on the battlefield, but
at tea, in marriages.

In the Woods and Broken Harbor by Tana French
Give me a murder,
a troubled cop, a bent rule–
that’s a good story.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay.
Few things can’t be healed
with the right tea, a mantra,
and a woman’s touch.

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
And who among us
has not fashioned a clay child
or solved grief with math?

Home by Nnedi Okorafor
What’s more alien:
tentacled beings from space or
the village girl, their friend.

Coming up soon: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, the third novella in the Binti series; Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng; a bunch of paperbacks I picked up off the ARC table.

Previous Books I Have Loved: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.

Reading Roundup: September/October

Read

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I actually finished rereading the day after I posted my midway review in the last roundup. I found that I didn’t want to put it down.

All Grown Up by Jamie Attenberg. A fast phone read–I read about 40% while minding a boring post at a work event. I had so many feelings, not all of them positive. I respect and wrote about Attenberg’s earlier novel, The Middlesteins, which dips into a number of different characters’ perspectives. All Grown Up features just one–Andrea, thirtysomething and single and working a boring if stable job and trying and continuously failing to figure out how to be happy. I got so tired of Andrea, but her problems are my problems (barring the occasional dip into drug addiction and the extent of her tolerance for worthless men). There’s no lesson in the emotional ending, but part of the point of this book is that there isn’t a lesson. In this world, people don’t change for the better, they just get sadder and older. Perhaps that’s what I didn’t like about it–it offends the optimism I cling to for dear life.

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s sort of cheating to include this book because it was several days into November when I finished it, but I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to talk about it. I felt let down by Oyeyemi’s last book, Boy, Snow, Bird, even before the rather dismaying plot twist. I think this author is at her best in structures like Mr. Fox, in which she can cartwheel between beautiful, mysterious fairytale-like short stories that are surprising but familiar. What is Not Yours returns to that format and opens up a series of captivating little worlds, some mundane and contemporary and others seemingly from times long past in lands where supernatural forces easily slip into daily life. But the stories mostly connect, so that characters you meet in one chapter might reappear decades later in another story, and you learn that the otherworldly student from the creepy puppet school grows up, falls in love, exists in the same plane as the contemporary teenager heartbroken over a celebrity crush. Each story is about longing, in some ways–wanting something that you cannot or should not have–and I found it reassuring that in the universe of these stories, one can recover from loss and yearning and magic and simply go on.

Reading

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I did it, I’m taking the class. Some of my favorite co-workers are in it. Now that I’m not reading it hungover on a stunning beach in Mexico, I’m able to appreciate the humor in it. It’s a challenge to read on my commute; Melville packs about three sentences into every one, with clauses and asides that make nautical jokes or fill in the picture of seafaring life two centuries ago, and if the bus jolts I lose my place and have trouble finding my way back. But I’m enjoying the ride immensely. Everyone is just so extra.
On the minus side, Moby-Dick is not a small book and reading it has considerably shortened my Read list.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the only book I picked up at the book swap I hosted in August. I was more focused on given books away, but the book’s owner had written on a sticky note that the book about some medieval miniaturists trying to solve a murder, and I love me a good art history mystery. I was enjoying the story, too, but set it aside for by Moby-Dick and other distractions. Now the book’s previous owner has passed away and I wish I’d kept that sticky note. I am a little too sad to keep reading for the time being.

To Be Read

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Kindle, Amazon released pretty much all of Octavia Butler’s work for $1.99 apiece, and I downloaded everything I haven’t yet read. I am so excited.

I also picked up a copy of Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is the One Book One Philadelphia selection this year, and I am really looking forward to the experience of reading it at the same time that so many friends and neighbors are reading it. I loved that last year with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Book Blind Items

I started writing reviews for IndieReader.com. I can’t post my reviews anywhere else, but in way this is very liberating, because I can write here what I cannot say in my review, and just not mention which book it is.

The first book I received really troubled me, and I talked about it angrily to several friends before I tempered my response into a review format. During that time, I saw Colson Whitehead speak at the Wolf Humanities Center, and he said several things that helped me temper and modify my response. He quoted Toni Morrison in saying that the catastrophe of slavery makes it an inexhaustible subject. He also said that the very fine work of authors before him freed him from an obligation to social realism. In combination, these perspectives allows him to write a version of the Underground Railroad that involved a literal train: there was still more meaning to mine from that catastrophe, but no obligation to cleave only to the truth of what happened. Indeed, what factual recitation could really express the truth?

The first book I reviewed was set during the Civil Rights Era; written by a white author, the dedication said that she told this story so that her grandchildren would know the shadow history of the south (presuming, I guess, that they won’t read any of the high quality Civil Rights narratives by writers of color). The book, in addition to being poorly written, raped and maimed its black characters and peppered them with n-words, purportedly to show how bad things were Back Then. (One is reminded of the Game of Thrones defense: rape is historically accurate! that is definitely the only reason we are depicting it onscreen, and definitely not because we are trying to be edgy! also this has nothing to do with any sexual assault discourse today!) But why did we need a white author to write this story in this way? What do I, a white reader, gain by reading it? What on earth would a nonwhite reader get out of it?

The second book I received is just fic trash about some Yakuza assassins, but I’m not finished reading it and have not yet reviewed it.