Reading Roundup: September 2018

Hello, friends! The world is on fire and I can’t quite catch my breath when I’m in proximity to the news, which is all day at work, but I also can’t quite bring myself to unplug. What I can do is bury myself in books during my commute!

The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder. I picked this book up from my aforementioned favorite bookstore near my workplace, which sets its clearance table out on a highly trafficked sidewalk, like a trap. It looked like a light, humorous read for my plane trip over Labor Day weekend. This was an error on my part: the story is neither light nor funny, but mean-spirited and shallow. I read the whole thing because it is the right length for two legs of my trip and I did want to see how all these unpleasant characters would resolve their largely self-imposed conflicts. (And I didn’t have a backup book because we didn’t stop by my family’s favorite used bookstore as we usually do when I’m home.) I didn’t enjoy it except for the leg of my trip spent cowed into a corner by a tiny, somewhat malodorous seatmate whose in-flight magazine somehow required her to take up the entire middle armrest and some of my airspace as well. I needed the distraction, and the petty misanthropy of the book matched my own feelings during that time.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor. Another pickup from the neighborhood clearance table. (I’m not complaining! Most of my books are still in their 12×12 moving boxes, so the occasional $5 treat is very welcome.) I’ve long been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s imaginative worlds and vivid writing; this book is not my favorite of hers, but for reasons that other readers might love. Writing partly in response to the film District 9‘s troubling caricatures of black South Africans, Lagoon imagines what would happen if a race of aliens with collective consciousness landed in Nigeria’s biggest city. The story centers around three extraordinary humans, and while most chapters are written from one of their perspectives, other chapters are told by side characters both extraordinary and not, human and not. (For example, the opening chapter is written from the perspective of a swordfish.) Together, these characters tell a complicated, chaotic story of alien invasion and what the inhabitants of Lagos risk losing–or gaining, in some cases. That is very cool, but stylistically not my cup of tea.

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty.  The Kindle edition of this book has been on sale to promote the upcoming sequel, but after I read the free sample I went to my favorite brick-and-mortar to buy a paperback copy (having learned my lesson from Sofia Samatar’s glorious fantasy novels). At 569 pages, this book is a doorstop, but despite a busy schedule of theater outings and dinners one week, I devoured the book between Monday and Friday night. A reimagining of the legends of djinn and Middle Eastern folklore, The City of Brass reminded me of Samatar’s stories in that it is a richly drawn world barely touched by the overfamiliar tropes of Western medieval fantasy. It is less dense and erudite, but all the more accessible for a breathless read–and it is action-packed at a pace you don’t expect from a debut novel. I want simultaneously to re-read this story, see it as a film produced with the same level of polish as Thor: Ragnarok, and read the sequel immediately (it comes out in January).

In progress

Basic Witches by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman. When I was a kid, I had a slim hardback book called Teen Girl Talk: A Guide To Beauty, Fashion, and Health. It was the sort of girl’s manual that offers guidance like how to do simple calisthenics and choose clothing, nothing useful or racy about periods or whathaveyou. But I read and re-read this book throughout my preteen years; I particularly remember a section that explained the four fashion templates a girl could select as her personal style (ingenue, romantic, sporty, and classic), each illustrated with a swatch of fabric typical of the style (lace, lace, bold stripes, pinstripes–no, I still don’t know what the difference between ingenue and romantic was supposed to be). I studied this manual obsessively because I could not see my own girlhood in it. If this book describes what it is to be a girl, which of these four types would I become? What if they all sound boring and centered on things I don’t care about, like sports and boys?
Basic Witches bears some similarities to a girl’s wellness manual, right down to the calisthenics and beauty tips. But it doesn’t care about performing girlhood correctly–in fact, it explicitly invites readers of any gender, and doesn’t specify the reader’s age. Nor does it provide instructions for witchcraft, Wicca, or similar. It does offer recipes, rituals, and mantras for self-care and self-acceptance, with a few callouts to unruly women in history. Thus, I could see this book making a good gift to an adolescent who is trying to figure out how to express their unique spirit; I think it would have meant a lot to me to see something like this when I  was a confused teen who felt like a girl but not like an ingenue, whatever that is supposed to mean. As an adult, I am sorry to say that the book isn’t doing much for me–though I admire both writers a lot, I don’t hear their voices in this prose, and I don’t have much use for the mantras.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Tor Books offered a free ebook edition to promote the author’s next novel. I’d already read the free sample some time ago and felt it was not precisely my jam, but my Twitter feed is full of very smart women who love this book, so I decided to give it another try.
I’m about a third of the way through, and I do plan to finish it, but it’s somewhat painful going for me–the protagonists are children who have all manner of cruelties visited upon them by classmates and relatives and school administrators, and I am so anxious for them in a way that feels fundamentally different from the page-turning anticipation I felt for The Brass City‘s end-of-chapter cliffhangers. Sometimes fictional anxieties are cathartic in this era of uncertainty and terrible news, but for me it is not working this way. It is an imaginative story full of surprises, though, so credit where it is due.

Elsewhere on the Internet

As noted in early installments of Books I Have Loved, I really enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and this piece in the New Yorker may help you feel the same. (Bonus pop culture reference: the author links Gaskell’s fictions to the recent film Sorry to Bother You.)

In other media news, I tweeted about all the Fringe Festival shows I went to see this month. It’s not as epic as the time I did an alimentary analysis of all the Fringe Festival shows I saw in 2014, but I wanted to capture something of the experience. For many years, I’ve browsed the Fringe catalog and curated an email to persuade friends to see some shows with me; revisiting those emails is a little glimpse into artworks and social experiences that were shared once and then carried away by the tide of time. Anyway, this is the start of the thread.

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Reading Roundup: July/August 2018

Well, friends, I read and write to you now from a new apartment. I hired some strong and enterprising young people to pick up and move roughly 10 cubic feet of books, which I’d meticulously wiped clean of dust and packed into boxes with the generous help of some friends. As I dusted, I held each book in my hands and seriously considered whether I would plausibly reference or re-read it at any point. Several dozen books did not make this cut. Those that remained caused a little bit of an existential crisis.

I love reading new fiction. Apart from to new-to-me old stories, the world keeps putting out fantastic new stories and I keep eating them up. According to my bimonthly book-logging, I read 31 new-to-me books last year and re-read 1 (A Handmaid’s Tale). I am reading at roughly the same pace this year, so perhaps this is my post-grad-school book rate. So when I am going to reread all these books that I just moved? (I actually don’t know how many there are; I only know the approximate volume thanks to the helpfully labeled boxes I packed them into.) Will I just move an ever-growing volume of novels from place to place until their bindings come unglued and their yellowing paper starts to crumble? Will my nephew become heir to ten cubic feet of cracked spines and shedding pages with barely legible margin notes?

Anyway, here’s what I read this summer.

First, I finished reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and it continued to spook, surprise, delight, and provide an unexpectedly appealing advertisement for visiting the salt marshes of Essex.

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved Station Eleven by the same author, and have had this earlier novel on my shelf since Christmas. I was reminded to pick it up after reading the author’s thoughtful response to a bad review. (Between this and one of the plotlines of Jane the Virgin season 4, I have decided to never read any reviews, good or bad, should I ever publish a novel.) The Singer’s Gun lacks some of the layers I loved about Station Eleven, but the kinship is recognizable in its melancholic approach–its characters all appear to be mourning their jobs and relationships even before losing them–and in its thoughtful meandering exploration of what in most novels would be a crisis. For awhile, main character Anton spends his days doing nothing–but I enjoyed it, as his nothing involved a quietly lovely routine in a sunny island town. This book is an excellent summer read in that its premise offers suspense–I love a good heist plot in the summertime–but doesn’t require much energy of you.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. I felt deeply unsettled by the first section of this book, which details the affair between a young woman and a much older wealthy and famous writer. The writing is lovely and the uneasiness familiar–I myself have never dated a man so many decades older than myself, but the story explores the various points where their respective social powers are asymmetrically balanced (his money, her lack thereof; her health, his frailty) and I think it was that growing, stomach-tightening awareness of the imbalance that I recognized. I can’t say that I enjoyed seeing it on the page, but I suppose I can see the value of a woman writer telling the flip side of an “aged intellectual dates alluring young woman” story such as, say, The Dying Animal by Philip Roth. Inadvertently (by way of this odd little piece about strawberry jam), I found out that the author of Asymmetry had been in a relationship with Philip Roth when she was rather young and he was rather old. I wish I didn’t know this. It made the experience of reading this section a little worse.
But then I got to the second section, where the author switched to a first-person account of an Iraqi-American economics PhD who is detained in a London airport on his way to visit his family not long after the U.S. invaded Iraq. The author gives this character an elegant and wistful voice for the stream of observations, memories, and philosophy he contemplates to keep himself occupied in the interminable wait. Setting aside some not-inconsequential questions about what it means for a white American to voice a citizen endangered by the U.S. military, the writing itself is gorgeous and warmly human.
I felt a little misled as I watched this thoughtful character-sketch unfold into a much larger political critique. I had felt such dismay reading the painful, guarded May-December romance narrative, both because of the subject matter and because we so often pigeonhole young female writers into autobiography, either by requiring they eviscerate their inner lives for clicks or by assuming that is all they are capable of. I’m so much more than that, this second section seems to say. And I’m a little mad about it. Not at the author. After all, her relationship was well-known to people who know these things–how likely is it that she could have gotten a book out the door without first telling that story? It’s almost as if the semiautobiographical first story is a toll she had to pay in order to get on with the work of inventing a character.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. This book was a delicious read for the summer: scary and suspenseful and weird. I knew very little about the story going in, just a general sense from the movie trailers that there would be luridly lush growth in the site of a mysterious environmental disaster–and the narrative absolutely delivered on that eerie, haunting verdure and teeming life. Its creeping sense of dread emerges from scenes that are both beautiful and gross, somehow.
I do plan to see the film at some point, but I think Area X would make a very cool setting for a video game.

Dietland, by Sarai Walker. I started hearing about this title in my social media feeds in response to Netflix’s extremely horrible-looking Insatiable. Dietland is also being made into a TV series, and has been reprinted with a gorgeous new cover which led me to pick it up and take it home last time I visited my favorite bookstore. It’s an incredible read: fast-paced and cinematic, but thoughtful and authentic. It offers the vicarious pleasure of a truly gruesome revenge fantasy but also the hope and acceptance of a gentler story; it ultimately argues for strength and fury without violence. Plum’s journey to self-acceptance is anything but easy or glib–I had to put the book down at several points and collect myself–but the change in her character felt earned and right. This book feels like a unicorn among even the sort of books I love: not only did it sketch out the interiority of its obese protagonist with seriousness and sensitivity, but it makes a solid effort at intersectional feminism as it places Plum’s life experiences alongside other forms of micro- and macro-aggressions experienced by women in the novel.

Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton. It took me some time to warm up to this novelized account from the perspective of Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and third wife to Ernest Hemingway. Hilary Mantel has given me impossibly high standards for historical fiction, and one wants one’s literary legends to come to life in an appropriately elevated style. I had my doubts as the awkward frame story introduced Martha Gellhorn in her old age looking back at her letters, and the uninspiring first meeting between writings in the purported paradise of Key West. But the novel’s workmanlike prose and chummy dialogue turned out to be the right tools to carry me through Marty’s coverage of the Spanish civil war and the dicey first days of their adulterous courtship; you can even see why she’d allow herself to get mixed up with him, despite a healthy amount of skepticism for his possessiveness and his braggadocio swaggering around Spain pulling strings. As the authors returned home, fought, married, and fought some more, the novel felt much longer than it actually was–but, I suppose, so did their four-year marriage. At any rate, the book did pull me along on what turned out to be an absorbing account of experiences that would have been harrowing if the narrator slowed down and explored any one moment too intimately: wars on many fronts, crumbling marriages, the highs and lows of writing and publishing. And I feel motivated by the depiction of Hemingway and Gellhorn spending their mornings at the typewriter and afternoons fishing and swimming; that’s one way to get the work done.

And this summer’s re-read: The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. There’s a second edition out now, and I would warmly recommend it to any of my peers who are publishing their first academic monograph, or considering leaving academia for publishing, or looking to pick up some copy editing as a side hustle. I read the first edition in 2010 or 2011, and it gave me a solid foundation for understanding the roles of different kinds of editors in academic publishing. (I’d had a couple informational interviews by then, both with acquiring editors, and their work is so different from what I imagined that I couldn’t really wrap my head around it until I read Saller’s explanation.) It’d be worthwhile to get the second edition since much has changed in both the publishing world and the style guide world in the last decade (for example, the first edition includes a dismissive note about they/their pronouns which I really hope the author has reconsidered). But this isn’t really book about style guides or academic publishing careers: it’s a manifesto for maintaining cordial relations with authors who might feel personally attacked by your edits.  The author urges carefulness, transparency, and flexibility; I can’t say that I learned those virtues from this book, since they are also important qualities in the customer-facing roles I’ve had, but it was refreshing and reassuring to revisit them now that copy editing is one of my current job responsibilities.

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.

 

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.

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.