Reading Roundup: March/April

In the Woods by Tana French. I was slow to get on the Tana French train, but I read Faithful Place last year and knew I’d be back for more eventually. In the Woods is the first of a series: a riveting, page-turning dive into the murder investigation for two unusual cases. I hate, hate that a key plot device never really gets resolution, but I enjoyed the ride too much to be mad about it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gearing up for a fall exhibition. I read this book several times in college, and was surprised about (a) how inattentive my college-aged readings had been and (b) that I didn’t enjoy my re-read more. I loved reading Dracula for the first time, but it’s far more campy and less existential; perhaps that’s why. But there was so much I missed on my first times through that it was well worth revisiting.

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives. Have you ever disliked someone almost to the point of enjoyment? Maybe someone you know from work or school, someone who you ought to have a great deal in common with, except that they irritate you in thousands of small ways that you can’t stop thinking about or talking about? This book is that, for me.
On paper, we’re made for each other: it takes place in a large art museum not unlike one where I’ve worked, among overeducated and overmoneyed people not unlike some who I’ve met, driven by a sort of mystery that can only be solved by looking at books and art. Perfect, right? But this is not a good book. The narration is an irritating blend of purple prose and toneless slang. The characters are weirdly specific yet underdrawn, all quirks and little depth. The mystery fizzles out with an inconclusiveness that is not tantalizing. So, I kind of hate this book. But maybe I also love it? At any rate I couldn’t stop reading it. Make of that what you will. 

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This novella was free on a Tor for a weekend, so I downloaded it and read it during the two hour duration of my latest tattoo. It turned out to be the perfect thing under those cicumstances. It’s a story about a school for wayward children who have visited other worlds, sort of like the Pevensies and Narnia, except everyone in this book hates them. It’s a fun gimmick–how many other worlds are there, how do children adjust when they return–but then on top of that there is a murder mystery, just gruesome enough to justify my white-knuckled grip of the phone during some of the more uncomfortable angles of my tattoo.
I mean, is it a good book? Do I love it? I can’t really say so; it’s not every author that can make the short novel form really work for a fantasy world. (The only Tor author I’ve read that does it really masterfully is Nnedi Okorafor.) All the same, I wholeheartedly recommend it to friends who enjoy the school-of-magic trope and want a short pleasant confection of a read.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay. On the other hand, this is undoubtedly a Book I Love. I can’t help it! It’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except in 19th century New York, and if the author had chosen to focus on the magic of women rather than men. There are delicious descriptions of herbs and teas and spells; a gratifying amount of attention to Victorian couture; a pleasing variety of textures in the inclusion of letters, book excerpts, and news columns; and a sort of encyclopedia of 19th century New York fads: Egyptomania, talking to ghosts, suffrage, and more. I was amused at the shout-out to several key figures of the era, including Madame Restell (whose portrait is included in a crime news broadsheet currently on display in the museum where I work) and Anthony Comstock (whose namesake law provided grounds to ban Ulysses among other major books).

Reading Roundup: January-February

Friends, one of the absolute best things about not being in school is that I can read what I want when I want. Here are a few books I read in the last couple of months. Not all of them will make it to the Books I Loved roundup at the end of the year, but I still want to talk about them with you.

Shrill by Lindy West
I haven’t been a Jezebel reader in a long while, but Lindy West’s writing is adored and widely shared in my social media circle and I’d read most of the articles that inspired or supported this essay collection. So it was more of a comfort-reading experience than a ground-breaking experience for me, but I still appreciate her bold, bawdy style.

Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
If you’ve ever wished to read a novel that is actually an opera in book form, this is for you. Huge, sweeping story full of surprise twists and mistaken identities; elaborate, sumptuously-described costuming; opera and circus arts; espionage; thwarted love. This book made me temporarily obsessed with the Napoleon line; I know very little about the louche Emperor Napoleon III, for example, but the excesses of a self-anointed leader are understandably fascinating right now.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibin
Tóibin is a favorite where I work, and this book was on sale on Amazon, so I thought I would acquaint myself with his writing. The appeal of this quiet, subdued story of an Irish-American immigrant in Brooklyn snuck up on me; at first it felt a little too quiet after the all the drama of Queen of the Night, but I found myself really sinking into the story and setting, thinking about Eilis and 1950s New York long after I put the book away.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru
I picked this book up from a pile of ARCs at the library where I work, attracted by its title. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, but I think that is because this is a book of a peculiar genre that might be someone else’s exact jam but isn’t so much mine. It’s sort of a slow-burn technohorror novel, featuring a great deal of white class anxiety and detailed descriptions of recording studio equipment before you realize that it is a ghost story. I read it with an odd mix of appreciation for and disengagement with the author’s craft until the last few chapters, when all the vague creeping horror of the novel coalesces into a vivid, visceral payoff.

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I also picked up this book from the ARC table, and against all odds I love it. It’s a collection of short stories, which is usually not at all my thing, but these stories have the feel of snapshots or fairytales that are precisely the right length. Some of the stories are magical or fantastic, exploring relationships (especially parent-child relationships) through supernatural elements in a way that reminds me of the short stories by Karen Russell which I also loved against all odds; the fantasy elements aren’t weird just to be weird, but seem to perfectly express the inherent weirdness of being human. Other stories play out more ordinary conflicts in everyday settings, but are infused with that sense of magic and otherness. I love them and can’t wait to read a novel by this author.

Home by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the sequel to Okorafor’s novella Binti, which I really enjoyed, but I wish I had taken the time to re-read it before beginning Home. It took me a little while to catch back up with the world–which is beautifully imagined and vivid enough to step into, but the action is a little confusing if you’ve forgotten (for example) that the lead character was physically altered at the end of the first novella.

In the reading queue

I am still reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in preparation for my workplace’s annual Bloomsday celebration. I admit that I do not love it, but I appreciate having a once-a-month seminar to discuss the book with a dozen other folks of various ages and educational backgrounds. Class discussion is lively and human and helps me warm up to the book.

My workplace had an incredible event in early February which featured local poets and blues music: I walked away with a stack of new books: The T-Bone Series by Quincy Scott Jones, She Was Once Herself by Trapeta Mayson, Orogeny by Irene Mathieu, and Monk Eats an Afro by Yolanda Wisher.

I’ve downloaded The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey, a 1920s mystery novel writer who I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of before now.