Reading Roundup: January 2019

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve enjoyed the author’s other books, and this one is no exception. The book mostly centers on Amy, a New York mom who grapples with feelings of uselessness as her ten-year-old son becomes more independent, her marriage seems perfunctory, and her former career as an attorney seems impossibly distant and unrewarding. The narrative dips into the lives of Amy’s friends, mostly mothers of other boys at her son’s private school, their parents, and even some surprising glimpses of the lives of Margaret Thatcher’s assistant and Rene Magritte’s wife. It is a sharply observed book, mostly humane and sympathetic even as it recognizes the privilege of certain characters and the ways many of their struggles are of their own making.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. I’ve been following Ng on Twitter because she tends to tweet beautiful and interesting things about art and books and animals. This fantasy novel reflects some of those fascinations, as well as obsessions you might call Victorian gothic. Much of the action, such as it is, takes place in an spooky castle in faeland, and it’s as still and claustrophobic as any genteel maiden’s life might be: running around the moors like Elizabeth Bennett is not an option for Catherine Helstone, as a mortal who is never completely safe in Arcadia. The experience of reading the book is like exploring a cramped antique store, so packed full of oddities you can’t really take it all in. For example, the novel told me plainly, more than once, that Arcadia was circumnavigated by wicker whales that contained oceans and swam through the earth the way regular whales swim through the sea. That imagery didn’t really sink in, though, until a faeland whale beached itself near the castle and our protagonists could look inside its mouth to see sunlight glinting through the wicker roof of its inner cavity and illuminating the improbable coastal region they found therein. This is not a complaint! If you’re in the mood for eldritch fantasy with a heaping dose of metaphysical poetry, this a book that rewards a slow read–as your eyes may frequently dart back to see if you really read what you thought you read.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. I’ve been hearing about this novel for years–it’s a popular book in discussions of food literature, since the main character Rachel is a food writer and drops in recipes throughout the story of her acrimonious divorce. I started and finished the book on a long train ride, possibly the only circumstances in which I could manage it. Though you can see the relationship between this self-deprecating narrator and the lighter, sweeter humor of When Harry Met Sally, using humor as a coping mechanism means that everyone around the narrator becomes a target for a joke too, which in turn means a number of jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and mental illness that didn’t age well.
On the other hand, I’ve had two occasions this month to quote Heartburn on capers–“Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it”–which I find untrue but nonetheless funny.

Nothing Good Can Come Of This by Kristi Coulter. It’s unusual for me to seek out a memoir or collection of essays. Even more unusual for me to seek out non-drinking narratives; I don’t even participate in Drynuary. But something drew me to this book, which turned out to be a cathartic read for a month known for broken promises and dreariness. Her writing about drinking is not preachy or prescriptive–she only ever claims to be writing about her own addiction–but her anxieties and addictions are inextricably linked to the same worries that trouble us all, from capitalist exploitation to conspicuous consumerism to bad politics, and therefore extremely Relevant To My Interests. When the author confronts the insidiousness of drinking culture, she consciously confronts the capitalist and sexist burnout that make workers, especially women, want to dull their senses. When she delves into the history of her personal wounds and wants that laid the groundwork for both her alcoholism and recovery, I appreciated the author’s deft balance of self-criticism and self-care (particularly so soon after reading the blunt-force deprecation of Heartburn). As I prepare to attend an upcoming wedding, I am indebted to the author’s conceptualization of a wedding as a novel–the sprawling Russian kind that has too many characters and subplots. A lovely prose poem called “Permission” could be a prescription for recovering from any kind of grief, with a nod to the late Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”)

Elsewhere on the Internet

Do I link myself? Very well then, I link myself. Meet your new Centuries-Old Boyfriend.

I considered adding this link to my food roundup because I associate hygge so strongly with alimentary pleasures–perhaps due in part to regular visits to Bar Hygge in Philly–but as the author points out, hygge is more about social conditions than material comforts: You don’t want hygge, you want social democracy at Jacobin.

The Good Place has not been pulling any punches this season! It goes by so quick that I need to immerse myself in recaps and reflections, and appreciated this take from gamer site Unwinnable:

The Good Place scares the crap out of me on a regular basis because of stuff like this, but I do think it’s a useful illustration of what we mean when we say all systems reflect the biases and points of view of their creators.

Appreciated this simple but persuasive take at Vox on why some of today’s best TV shows (all shows that I watch and enjoy!) centers on ordinary people trying to be their best selves, rather than the white male antihero that dominated so much of prestige television in the last two decades.

As a professional writer and editor who refers to proofreading as “proofing,” I absolutely love this Establishment listicle: ‘Great British Bake Off’ Or Feedback From My Editor? You Decide! Samples: “The layers are there…at least,” “Good idea but not executed as well as it could have been,” and “Crispy all the way through.”

I somehow missed this iron-clad criticism of lazy writing from a year ago: Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?  See also: hire sensitivity readers! Consider talking to knowledgeable people if your crucial plot points pivot on completely knowable processes!

I don’t know how I forgot to include these on the roundup last month, they are SO GOOD:

Speaking of modernism: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this entire chart, but the Mercedes de Acosta circle and H.D.-Bryher triangle appear to be spot on.

Yes, yes, this month’s roundup is a Twitterfest. But I could not publish a reading roundup without saying a word about the social media upset that rippled out from Marie Kondo’s recommendation re: books. It kept going long after we established that Kondo never said the words “Ideally, keep less than 30 books” (a paraphrase added to an image by a clergyman who actually wanted to encourage his peers to declutter). It kept going after Kondo explained that she herself prefers to keep a limited number of books but what matters is what “sparks joy” for you. The word “joy” became a lightning rod for complainers who want to showboat about their taste in Serious Literature; meanwhile, the idiom “spark joy” is an imprecise translation of a Japanese phrase which (according to Wikipedia, come on, I am not fluent in Japanese and neither are most of you) actually means to “flutter” or”palpitate.”

I’ve not watched much or read any or Kondo’s Konmari-ing, so I’m surprised to feel so strongly on the subject. But I do feel strongly about books, so if you are interested in my thoughts on the matter:

  1. No one is coming for your books. Do what you want with your books! Personally, I’m in favor of culling your books, but I myself just moved about 12 boxes of books to my new home, so I can’t judge.
  2. But, seriously, consider culling your books. Books are not inherently magical objects! They are made of organic matter that decays and cannot be kept for your entire lifetime unless you take extremely good care of them, which you are probably not doing! If you’re not reading some of your moldering books in the meantime, someone else could be. Besides, when I culled the books I was required to read for my PhD and donated the books I chose not to carry forward into my future, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my adult life.
  3. Speaking of joy: as mentioned above, it’s just an idiom. No one is suggesting that you set Dostoyevsky on fire because he doesn’t make you happy.
  4. You know perfectly well that if the English translator had chosen another approximate idiom–for example, if you were asked to sense the vibe of your books or see whether they make your heart throb–the same haters would complain. It’s the source they don’t like, not the message.
  5. Going forward, I only want to see Kondo memes that poke fun at my own sacred cows.

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Meet your new centuries-old boyfriend

I’m not well-read in the romance genre, so I wouldn’t say that I am familiar with romance tropes and common themes. However, I’ve been devouring fantastical fiction like it’s my job (btw, I would be happy to make this my job! Hire me to write book reviews!) and I keep bumping into this one character type over and over. He’s dazzlingly beautiful, usually: shiny hair, mesmerizing eyes, cheekbones that could cut a lesser man. He is somehow both chivalrous and distant; he has a secret, this Byronic hero, and he keeps it from you for your own good.  He’s preternaturally smart or preternaturally strong or preternaturally gifted–usually a combination of the three. The reason for this is usually because he has had a brush with magic (vampire bite or enchantment, perhaps) and a few hundred years to study the blade, or whatever. He’s your Centuries-old Boyfriend, and he keeps popping up in books I’m trying to read. Here is the example I encountered most recently, followed by a few others that came to mind as I read about him.

Matthew Clairmont in A Discovery of Witches, French templar turned revolutionary turned Oxford doctor who falls in love with a witch.
How old: about 1500 (looks 37)
Smells like: cloves, sometimes carnations
Special skills: Very fast, very strong, very sexy (the better to hypnotize prey), plus has been through grad school a few dozen times
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating and her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood! Also for complicated political reasons.

Edward Cullen in Twilight, flu victim turned repeat high school senior, possibly the archetypal Centuries-Old Boyfriend of our generation
How old: around 100 (looks 17)
Smells like: “honey-sweet” and “like lilacs and sun,” as told by the internet
Special skills: the usual vampire triple threat (v. strong, v. fast, v. sexy), plus he sparkles and reads your mind
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: She smells intoxicating
Why he pulls away from her: He wants to drink her blood!

Darayavahoush in The City of Brass, warrior daeva or djinn (depending on who you ask)
How old: more than 1400 (looks 30)
Smells like: smoke, sometimes burnt citrus
Special skills: djinn stuff, like summoning objects and making carpets fly, plus a glamour to make him especially physically attractive for djinn reasons
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: she’s feisty, clever, and [SPOILER] the enchanted scion of an ancient race
Why he pulls away from her: Distaste, initially, then for complicated political reasons.

Sarkan in Uprooted, the Dragon, unfriendly neighborhood wizard
How old: about 150 (looks… not that old, but not young either)
Smells like: I don’t believe his scent is mentioned; however, if you are an Agnieszka/Kasia shipper, please note that Kasia’s scent is extensively described!
Special skills: wizard stuff, healing and fighting
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: her chaotic witchy magic is attractive
Why he pulls away from her: to be extremely fair, she is very young and also his pupil and it would have been weird if he didn’t resist her advances a little.

Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition, elfy apostate, weakest member of my party, BIG LIAR
How old: Old enough to KNOW BETTER
Smells like: thankfully not described
Special skills: hangs out in the Fade, making friends with spirits and reliving moments of historical importance; mysteriously knows where elven artifacts are hidden
Why he loves the female protagonist/reader stand-in: If she’s a female elf, he is (rudely) surprised by the force of her character, as he doesn’t have an extremely high opinion of modern elves
Why he pulls away from her: He has a millennia-old axe to grind and, I don’t know, possibly a world to destroy.

The quality that announced these characters to me–that made me realize I was seeing a trope rather than a trend–isn’t simply the characters’ age and supernatural abilities themselves, but the way those qualities serve as the Swiss Army knife of plot devices. Because Your Centuries-old Boyfriend is so aged and experienced, he positions himself as more knowledgeable and capable than the mortal female protagonist. That can generate conflict or resolve it, as needed. Want some dramatic tension? He’s seen things–he knows things–and he won’t tell her. He believes he knows best what she needs to know. Want some romantic tension, with a generous dose of wish fulfillment? In spite of their great differences and his supposed superiority, he finds himself drawn to her intelligence or independence or humanity. She may find his arrogance off-putting, but it’s intoxicating to be desired by one so dazzling. Want a quick solution to a seemingly impossible problem? He picked up some handy special skills during the last great war, or whatever. Maybe he also sensed some great power within her, waiting to be unlocked (perhaps waiting for him to unlock it).

I don’t hate it. In fact, one recent example had me actively rooting for the couple and eagerly turning pages to see if they would kiss. It’s more of an honorable mention: Detective Matteo Kildaire in The Frame-up is not one thousand years old, he’s just an average guy that happens to be above-average handsome and also a good communicator (unlike most of our COBs here).  But the narrator, violet-haired comic book writer MG, repeatedly refers to him as an “adult” and marvels at his grown-up apartment and wardrobe. The disparity in how MG perceives their respective put-togetherness creates a dynamic where she both admires and resents his abilities, while her youthful vivacity tempts him to bend the rules–a dynamic that may well have been inspired by the supernatural boyfriends of yore, given the author’s love of sci-fi and fantasy books and film.

As I say, I don’t hate it–I can see how a Centuries-old Boyfriend may be read as an answer to Trinity Syndrome, which reduces an overpowered Strong Female Character to a plot device who accelerates and rewards a male protagonist’s journey from apprentice to hero.

But I don’t love it either, and I’ve had my fill for now, so please… recommend your favorite Fantasy Love Interests who don’t spend the first half of their stories broodily keeping ancient secrets and unhelpfully protecting the protagonist from herself.

Books I read and loved in 2018

Five years ago, in response to a rise in discourse about why women authors are less read and reviewed than male authors, I posted a roundup of all the books by women I read in 2013. But this blog has always been about creating a personal record for myself above all else, so I’ve kept on making lists. In 2014: books by women I read and loved. While finishing my dissertation: books I re-read and loved. After my degree, when I had more time to seek out work by queer authors and writers of color: books I read and loved. I started posting reading roundups every other month; this year, I started posting every month. It has been a year of joyful, curious pleasure-reading that flourished without the constraints of an academic schedule or a time-sucking job.

Since I’ve already recapped all the books I read in 2018, my year-end list features a few of my favorites–in haiku form, like last year.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
It’s true: I’m in love
with a funny, lyrical,
and very queer book.

Every one of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante except the first one, which I read in a previous year
What is it to grow
up, away, apart–only
to return, rework?

Three novels by Tana French throughout the year
She has a real gift
for giving a voice to jerks–
humanity, too.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A private, fragile
life, circumscribed as it is
by a sugarbowl.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Clever as a curse,
fast-paced as a flying rug,
glittering as brass.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton
What wouldn’t you do
if glamour and capital
seemed within your grasp?

Dietland, by Sarai Walker
Revenge fantasy,
feminist manifesto,
permission to be.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The science of life:
indistinct at times from magic,
messy and turgid.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle
Our greatest treasure,
love of others, is also
our greatest horror.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
With the golden boy
in love with his own genius:
his wife, sharp as knives.

Reading Roundup: December 2018

Happy entire-week-off-because-I-work-at-a-university to me! Although the month is not yet over–and although I’m likely to finish another book sometime during the interminable airport waits between flights home–I am going to post my roundup before I enter…. the liminal space between winter holidays.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Although most of the books I acquire are serendipitous–discounted or used books I come across by chance–I’ve also started keeping a phone list of new books I’ve vetted and would like to buy from brick-and-mortar stores when I have the money and opportunity. Pachinko was the first book I bought from the brand-new bookstore in my neighborhood when they opened on December 1. It’s been on my wishlist since I heard of it: although I probably wouldn’t put the author’s previous book, Free Food for Millionaires, on my year-end lists of Books I Loved, I still think about it often: Casey’s dress-like-a-column advice, her tactile pleasure in creating hats, the titular scenes of Wall Street entitlement.
I think Pachinko will impress itself on me in much the same way. Like Free Food, it invents memorable characters and tells their stories in such a way that feels organic and original even as they carry out the novel’s elegantly simple theme. When it ended, I felt cheated for a moment–I’d been with the novel’s central family for several generations at that point, and it felt like their decades of struggle should have led up to a big boss conflict, a dramatic death or triumph. But a saga that opens with the line “History has failed us, but no matter” could not have tied up its narrative with a neat bow. The dramatic deaths and triumphs are scattered throughout, and both characters and readers are left to make sense of history on their own.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. A friend brought this to my house with the intent to lend it to me. This was a bold move for two reasons. For one, I don’t take reading recommendations well–a vestige of the year I spent compiling lists and reading 150+ books, some canon-approved and some not, for my qualifying exams. No one can tell me what to read now. Also, I am absolutely dreadful at taking care of books; few escape without stains and tears from their perilous journeys in my tote bag. But this book turned out to be a quick, delightful read and I’m glad she lent it to me.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel. I coaxed a sizeable group of friends to see the recent Melissa McCarthy movie with me on a vague promise of literary crimes and vintage gay New York. Other than burying my face in my gentleman’s shoulder during any scene which endangered a cat’s life (a little too close to home!), I loved the film. Loved Lee’s pivotal friendship with the mysterious Jack Hock, loved the meticulous care with which Lee gently toasted old paper so that it appeared aged, and purchased vintage typewriters to achieve the correct typefaces for her forged letters. My friends were a little more ambivalent than I was, citing the bleakness of Lee’s self-imposed loneliness and writers’ block as well as the brutal grief of losing her cat.
Visiting New Hope for a writer’s retreat earlier in the month, I dropped into the splendid Farley’s Bookshop and picked up Lee’s memoir of her literary forgeries. It’s a frightfully slim book. Given the scarcity of the source material, the film was fairly faithful: some cats and booksellers were merged into composites for narrative simplicity, and the film made Hock present and complicit in some of Lee’s meanspirited pranks. Some of Lee’s best forgeries are reproduced in the book, along with her insights into famous writers’ idiosyncrasies of voice and type.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Not my usual link fare, but my mind was blown by this Smithsonian report on how much Confederate monuments cost taxpayers to protect and maintain.

Columbia Journalism Review, What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?

I liked Earther’s coverage of Frankenstein and Dracula back when that was my beat, and I appreciate that the author picked up that thread and looked at climate change monsters in contemporary sci-fi books and movies.

Aw yissss, scathing book reviews! I had already read Andrea Long Chu’s delicious vivisection of Jill Soloway’s She Wants It, which is excerpted here. Chu has since somewhat fallen from favor with Literary Twitter because of her divisive New York Times op-ed about her impending sex reassignment surgery. I learned a great deal from the discourse that followed it, and have nothing consequential to add to it–but I think, regardless, that Chu’s precise takedown of Soloway’s particular brand is a public service.

Typing “delicious” in the context of a scathing review reminded me of a Daniel Ortberg’s delightful “It’s Every Character You Find in an 18th-Century Period Film,” which may just be the thing that gets me to willingly subscribe to an e-newsletter for the first time in my entire life.

Be-Lipsticked Fop Man Whose Feminine Presentation Belies Vicious Misogyny

always calling upsetting stuff “delicious,” definitely the first one to say anything after a painful or terrifying silence

In my profession, short and punchy sentences are valuable and effective. In my personal writing, I tend to unwind long and rambling sentences, and a great deal of my revision process entails breaking them apart like strands of spaghetti. But I feel emboldened by this lyrical paean to the long, musical sentence. I suppose the key is to write so the reader isn’t thinking about sentences at all.

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two.

In mid-December, I spent a lovely weekend in a cozy carriage house with my best friend from college; we were there to write, but we also cooked and poured ourselves whiskey and talked for hours. In talking one morning, we rambled from Mary Shelley to the Year Without A Summer to Persuasion, a novel Jane Austen wrote when the rainy Year Without A Summer kept her indoors. I leapt up and Googled Captain Wentworth’s smoldering letter to read aloud from my phone, reveling in the language. Later that morning, a procrastinatory Twitter check rewarded me with this JSTOR Daily article on Jane Austen’s Subtly Subversive Language, which is not only a crisply insightful piece in its own right but is absolutely rife with links to other JSTOR articles about Jane Austen, in case you are looking for a rabbithole to drop into.

Just because it’s Christmas:

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.]