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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