Reading Roundup: May/June 2018

I’ve been thinking about moving to a new apartment at the end of the summer, and I dread packing up my books.

There is probably not a greater volume of books now than the last time I moved five years ago, when I had recently weeded out the books required by my qualifying exams but was still in the midst of dissertation research and writing. How did I do it then? I’m sure I used some perfect book-sized boxes I brought home from my academic press job, but I also remember piling up books into the deep, wide Rubbermaid containers I’ve lived with since I moved to Philadelphia. Which is worse: boxes of a manageable weight that must be carried one by one, or a heavy tub of books that must be moved by two people but has handles? Advice welcome.

As I consider these options, I feel admonished by a dozen or so books on my kitchen table which I opened but did not finish during the month of being dissatisfied that every book was not written by Elena Ferrante. I still have not read them. May is a month of birthday gift cards, and I acquired some real page-turners this spring.

Recently Read

Lincoln at the Bardo by George Saunders. I think that George Saunders is the most hyped male author among my peers (by which I mean: my mostly female friends; my mostly female cohort at the library; the mostly female writers whose social media feeds I follow). I was in no hurry to catch up, but now I’ve done it; I finally read a George Saunders book, and I liked it. This particular book is experimental and surreal, qualities that predispose me to admire a book if not enjoy it. I did enjoy, though, and felt moved by his sonorously sad Abraham Lincoln and all the petty, confused souls that linger in the cemetery. Some of the more fantastical details made me wonder if Saunders read much fantasy fiction (it turns out that he does). Some of the more prosaic details made me wonder if there were any women of color on his publishing team or even in his life, because I was deeply troubled by a few narrative choices regarding black female characters. I am surprised there is not more overlap between the Saunders lovers in my life and the Joyce lovers in my life–but then I suppose I consider myself marginally a Saunders fan and not at all a Joyce fan, so there’s that.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. Comparisons have been made to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I wish to dispel up front. Yes, they both take place in a speculative near-future where certain socially conservative politics are taken to their logical extension. In Red Clocks, that future is practically today: the personhood of embryos is not currently written in federal law, but the effects of such a law (desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies, troubling limitations on the options of women seeking medical assistance to have children, and severe punishments for organizations and individuals who provide reproductive services) are currently widespread in many regions where scarce resources and misinformation make it difficult for women to choose when and when not to be pregnant. That makes for a different reading–in fact I am not sure what it would be like to read it today as opposed to a mere month ago, before the prospect of an open Supreme Court seat raised great concerns about landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade –but they also differ greatly in the style that delivers that message. Atwood’s early-career prose is spare and dry, which I think is partly what made Handmaid an enduring classic. Zumas goes all in for womanly witchiness (the three narrators are almost literally maiden, matron, and crone) and the fuzzy, squishy details of the body, which is admittedly a lot of fun.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I downloaded this book after the sample absorbed my attention with its lush detail and keenly observed family dynamics. I had no idea what a heartbreaking journey I signed up for. I don’t even want to tell you about it, because you may well want to read this Oprah-approved novel* and I don’t want to spoil you for challenges faced by the titular American marriage. Suffice it to say that the book takes cliches about love and family and sacrifice and makes you look hard at the emotional realities behind them. I cried more than once, and thought to myself “this is impossible, there is no way to solve this problem” more than once, and yet the characters had no choice but to trudge on. Although I felt a little uncertain about how the novel deployed certain controversial issues, I still wanted to read more after the abrupt end.

*Oprah will never steer you wrong when it comes to black women’s fiction. Authors like Toni Morrison, Natalie Baszile, and Edwidge Danticat deserve all the accolades.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor. I read this sample literal years ago, when I started to get into Okorafor’s fiction. I was immediately taken in by the storytelling, but not sure I was prepared for it to carry me through a narrative of genocide, mass rape, clitoridectomies, and other horrors. I’m glad I finally read it, particularly since there will eventually be an HBO adaptation. This novel depicts some of the most distinctive and visually compelling magic I’ve seen in fantasy literature, and I can’t wait to see what “the wilderness” and the magical Nsibidi writing look like onscreen. At the same time, I am so worried to see what HBO does with some of the graphic violence depicted on the page. If you’ve not read any of Okorafor’s fantasy fiction, I recommend you start with the Binti or Akata Witch series and save this one for when your heart and stomach are strong.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton. I need you to understand the way I devoured this novel. I started the free sample on my commute on a Tuesday. I downloaded the rest as I exited the subway. When I got home that evening I read at home for several hours. I would have done it again Wednesday if I didn’t have plans. I finished it Thursday night. It was surprising, suspenseful, packed full of fashionable and literary brain candy, and so fun to read.

I’m pretty consistently on board with Vox’s book coverage, and Constance Grady’s interview with the author is the reason I downloaded the sample. Interestingly, I found myself reflecting more than once on Grady’s assertion that the New York glamour depicted in this book is an authentic representation of the author’s life and style. It’s cool to know that, sure, and I recognized some of the places described therein (like the hidden speakeasy you access via telephone booth); I also saw my own early-20s self in the dramatic costume aesthetic. But I didn’t need this book to be authentic any more than I needed Ocean’s 8 to be realistic: I am here for the fashionable, fantastic, epic audacity of it all. Some of the details I most appreciated were places where the narrative spirals into fanciful riffs: the menagerie of imaginary emoji texted by Mimi, the increasingly unlikely combinations of flavors in Lavinia’s teas. The narrative voice of this novel is something really interesting: it is omniscient, which gives the plot a sense of inevitability and the perspective a sort of distance from its main character, Louise, even though it is only Louise’s perspective we get firsthand. I would also call the prose unapologetically feminine, both in the narrative attention to the clothes, cosmetics, and scents that captivate Louise and in its strategic use of conversational intimacy and intensifiers (“Louise is so, so good at this” we’re told more than once). It is both judgmentally detached–nothing is more damning of this social circle than the itemized lists of things Louise sees and does at parties–and sympathetic, giving us little glimpses of complexity or vulnerability in almost all of its characters. There is not a single likable character in this book, but Lavinia’s crowd all shimmer with a sort of enviable glamour on the surface, so you find yourself rooting for their petty ambitions and understanding why Louise would tie herself in knots to remain among them. Somehow the arch, gossipy narrator struck me as distinctive rather than precious, and I drank this book up like Lavinia does champagne.

Currently reading

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, which is dense enough that I won’t finish it until well into next month, but I’m enjoying it so much that it deserves a shout-out here. I think many of my friends who enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will also like this book, although instead of the dry footnotes of early 19th-century “theoretical magicians” there are feverish speculations of late 19th-century naturalists, and in place of the wonder and whimsy of magic there is a lot of mud and bog and teeming wildlife.

 

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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.

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.

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.

Reading Roundup: July/August

Some books are particularly good to read in the summertime. Typically I do most of my reading on subways and bus commutes, but summer offers new venues, like beaches or road trips. Because I was out of the house so much more for work and play, only a few books were good enough bring home to my couch–that meant I was reading en route but the book was too good to put down when I got home, despite other temptations like television and sleep.

Books worth reading on the couch

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. As predicted earlier this summer, I continued to really love this book–seriously, just stunning writing. It made me really feel how little I know I know about agriculture and the rural South despite living in Southern cities for the first 24 years of my life. I’ve never been interested, but the author makes rural life fascinating, beautiful, and terrifying.
But the ending though. So abrupt. And poor Ralph Angel never really evolved in this story. Maybe that’s the point–some sad combination of his circumstances and his choices continually kept him from growing into the person he desperately wanted to be, and if it’s wearying to the reader to watch him fail at everything he tries, that is likely the intent. Maybe I should just deal with my feelings about that. But it’s the only aspect of this gorgeous novel that is hard to love.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman. A prequel to Practical Magic, which was published more than twenty years ago. Look, unpopular opinion or not (probably not), I think the film adaptation of Practical Magic is better than the book. But I still enjoyed the book, a romantic and quasi-Romantic fantasy about beautiful and powerful women, transformative and life-threatening love, and magical interpretations of natural phenomena. The Rules of Magic is much the same, plus a little nostalgia for midcentury New York. It was a cheesy, charming read that I started reading on the train to New Jersey, continued on the beach, and then kept reading when I got home all warm and drowsy from the sun.
“What are you reading?” asked my gentleman friend, dropping by for a nightcap.
“A sexy witch book,” I told him. That’s pretty much it.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I started this earlier in the summer–it’s not a difficult book, just a long one. The hardest part is getting through the early chapters, in which dozens and dozens of characters appear for the first time with three names apiece, and then the Battle of Austerlitz which itself appears confusing and chaotic as it is experienced by the characters, in addition to being the first time we meet some of them. After that, it’s an absorbing read–a miss-your-subway-stop read–as characters scheme and seduce in the drawing room and on the battlefield. Closing the book made me miss the characters I’d spent 900 pages with, so I’ve been watching the recent BBC adaptation (which is astonishingly tight, in part because it makes some subtext into text) and look forward to sitting down with the cast recording of Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812 and following along with the lyrics, as I did for Hamilton.

Books to read in bars

Yes Please! by Amy Poehler. Happenstance brought about several consecutive afternoons of killing some time in a bar, having a drink alone while waiting to meet up with friends. On these occasions I was happy to have this playful, occasionally silly book on my phone rather than the enormous tome of War and Peace on the counter. This may be faint praise; there are some rough spots where the author is not quite as clever about racism and intersectional feminism as you’d like to see your heroes be. But I did love the chapter about the creation and production of Parks and Recreation.

Books to read on the road

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter. Do I mean Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones and Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23, two television series I love? Yes, I do! Is she a good writer? Well, this book is intended to be a gritty and suspenseful thriller, not a literary masterpiece. It was not as gritty as the cover promised, but it was interesting enough to merit a spontaneous read-aloud on two hour-long legs of a road trip. I highly recommend this as a form of entertainment! I skimmed along and just read the juicy bits, and I am sure I missed a few relevant plot points, but we had more than enough material to milk all the hard-boiled one-liners, bar scenes, and surprise twists for all they were worth–and complain aloud to each other about the loose ends. A+ reading experience, would repeat with a different thriller.

The Floating World, by C. Morgan Babst. Not completely intentionally, I ended up reading most of this either next to the water or in transit, where the grassy marshes and pastel seashore houses of New Jersey reminded me of the long lakeside stretch of I-10. The Floating World takes place in New Orleans in the three months after I moved away from that city: 2005, Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita.
As a caveat, I tend to shy away from media about New Orleans. I have my own cherished memories from living there fresh out of college, when everything in the world was new, and it’s hard to make space for other visions. Parts of Babst’s vision is strangely like mine, and it rankles. Some of the young characters dance on Frenchmen Street and go for burgers at Port of Call, like I did with my roommates. They think about the light and the river and the weight of history. The narrator goes in for first-year M.F.A. turns of phrase–one kiss is described as “his tongue fluttered on her palate” and I almost threw the book away. I think the author’s next novel is going to be stunning. I can’t tell if this one displeased me because of the writing or my jealousy over a city that hasn’t existed the way I knew for twelve years. But I still read it hungrily, and sadly as news coverage of Hurricane Harvey began to come in.

Books on my nightstand (in progress)

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. My gentleman friend had a copy of this one our recent beach trip, while I had The Floating World. We each finished reading our respective apocalypses side-by-side in the comfort of our room on a day of nonstop rain. Then he lent me A Handmaid’s Tale for the ride home. I had read it twice but it’s been about a decade, and I’d forgotten how vivid and dense with detail it is. I watched the first six episodes of the Hulu series, and there are so many tiny details that I thought were imagined by the showrunners–it is a beautifully designed show–but which actually appear first in the text. It’s weird to say that I’m enjoying it, but I am. As Atwood says in the new introduction, it’s an anti-prediction: telling this story is supposed to keep it from happening.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I’m obsessed with the Twitter bot–out of context, lines from the book sound like prophecies from a gay sea oracle–but I didn’t get very far when I first started reading the book several years ago on a trip to Mexico. I’m hoping to audit a course on the novel that is offered by my workplace–if not, I can’t promise to power through when I have a stack of ARCs and previously owned books to choose from.