Reading Roundup: December 2018

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere on the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

Be-Lipsticked Fop Man Whose Feminine Presentation Belies Vicious Misogyny

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

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

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

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

Just because it’s Christmas:


Reading Roundup: November 2018

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. First, a story. At the beginning of the month I went on a hike with a dear friend. We ambled and looked at trees and ate pretzels and decided unanimously that one glorious trek up a low autumnal hill was enough for one day, and so we went to browse at a suburban Barnes and Noble. I went immediately to the J shelf in fiction and was surprised to see no copies of The Haunting of Hill House, so we went to the info desk to ask. “Oh gosh,” said the woman at the counter, “We definitely have it, and it is definitely not where it is supposed to be. Let me try to remember.” Then, looking warily at me: “Have you read any Shirley Jackson before?” Yes, I told her, I recently finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her face creased into an all-over smile, and we both exclaimed about the joy of reading that book. “Okay, I remembered,” she said, and led me to the best-seller section up front. Chatting merrily to me about what she treasured in The Haunting of Hill House, her hand hovered over the newly reprinted edition (“now on Netflix!” with the lower half of a beautiful, melancholy woman’s face) before she handed me the classic Penguin edition next to it. I told her that she had made a good choice for me. I enjoyed that shared moment of bookish joy.

Like Castle, Hill House is alternately cozy and spooky. One minute its intrepid visitors are flirting and planning a picnic, and the next minute there is screaming–you know how it is. I wrote a little more about Hill House while writing about my own weird residence.

The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin. My Amazon First Read for November. This book is written in a very colloquial, YA-y voice that is not my usual jam, so it took me a few chapters to fall into step with it. Then, suddenly, I didn’t want to put it down. Narrator MG’s elaborately curated Quirky Gal vibe gives way to a love letter to geekdom, a breathless crush, an opening longing for female friendships. Not only does all this vulnerability make her more likeable–not that likeable is a requirement!–but her desire for connection helps the plot pick up speed and weight. It’s a frothy delight of a read, and–with due warning about the straight girl’s “insider” views of drag queen culture–I think some of my nerdy friends would enjoy the ride.

Galatea by Madeline Miller. I picked up this short read to get acquainted with the author, whose retellings of classical tales have been getting positive attention. On second thought, I’m not sure a Kindle Single is the best way to get to know a writer’s voice. But I did appreciate this reimagining of the Pygmalion myth, told from the perspective of the statue who finds herself magicked into being and simultaneously made a wife, mother, and prisoner.

Waiting by Ha Jin. At first, I was captivated by the book’s detailed rendering of its settings. Wherever the main characters go, whoever they speak with, the narrator trains a wide-angle lens on their scenery and makes note of what plants grow there, where the ambient sounds come from, whether there are ducks. The effect is to slow the pace of the story almost to a crawl–which is appropriate, given its title and decades-long timespan–but it was also pleasantly evocative, like experiencing the storytelling through little watercolor paintings. The setting is China after the Cultural Revolution; time moves very slowly in the rural village where one main character is from, and barely much faster in the dreary routine at the army hospital. Toward the end, the pacing began to grate on me as it grated on its characters. At one point I realized that the experience was similar to reading Anna Karenina: once the romance and urgency of the affair has given way to the unbearable everydayness of social shunning, it becomes a different reading experience. I have no doubt that the resemblance is intentional–Anna Karenina is mentioned by name several times when characters discuss books, although the Russian novel’s status is somewhat questionable in their era and the characters don’t go into depth on their thoughts or feelings about it.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. A quick aside. With some 30 under 30 list or another recently circulated, my social media feeds have been blowing up with the usual counterarguments: this famous author didn’t publish until they were x years old; that famous book was rejected by y publishers before it became a bestseller; etc. All good points! The most compelling response I’ve seen is this lovely Tumblr post enumerating all the years Terry Pratchett spent writing as a journalist and novelist before he penned his most beloved books. Discworld is not my bag–I’ve read one, maybe two of the novels–but it’s clear the man knew what he was about, and it softens my crusty post-academic heart to think of writing as a practice, of years spent writing commercially as just another way of developing a voice, of all my seemingly pointless blurbs and blogs sharpening me like a pencil.

This was very much on my mind as I finished Fates and Furies, a glossy, sweeping saga of a book that opens up two-thirds of the way through and expels a second, darker book, both dripping with flowery descriptions and ornamental set pieces. It’s ambitious and over the top and should not work, but it works and I couldn’t put it down. But I delayed reading this book for a long time because I deeply disliked the author’s first novel, which read like it was published too soon after an MFA program and would have benefited from languishing in a drawer for a few more years. But by Fates, a third novel, the author seems to have settled into her own voice, which is intimate and conversational, and while the story has its familiar themes (the life-after-college, the great-woman-behind-every-great-man) it is also surprising, weird, and great fun to read.

Elsewhere on the Internet

When I was skimming over my Twitter likes and retweets for last month’s roundup, I somehow skipped over this Buzzfeed reflection on Practical Magic, which is 20 years old this year. This was an error and a crime, because the article is beautifully written, has some stunning .gifs from the film, and of course it is extremely relevant to my interests. Only last year I read Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her earlier novel in which you find out more about the romantic tragedies that befell Aunts Jet and Frances (and Uncle Vincent, whose story only sort of explains why no one thought to mention him in the first book). I rewatched Practical Magic around the same time, and it remains an absolute delight: romance, revenge, sisterhood, mysterious and beautiful visual effects, everything you could want in a witchy film. It does surpass either book in terms of telling a good, tight story. On the other hand, the Magic books explore the themes of how trauma and power can travel through generations of a family–something a film doesn’t really have time to do–and it’s good sexy fun in any case, so I’m not not recommending a reread if you’re missing October’s witchy vibes.

Monique Truong, who wrote one of my favorite books of all time (The Book of Salt), was asked to write an essay to accompany travel photographs taken by museum curators. She wrote this, which the museum thought did not represent their curators in a positive light, so she published it elsewhere, and oh man is it gorgeously written and scathingly critical.

It is occasionally my duty to write pithy taglines–or at the very least, clickworthy email headers–and I do enjoy it, although I don’t believe it is my greatest talent. (As you know, my professional experience favors titles that tell you want they are!) I did like reading a little more about writing punchy copy from the lady who charges $960/hour for Instagram quotes and other services.

A celebration of Elizabeth Gaskell and female friendships? I’m already there.

I don’t like to give even indirect clicks to white male author intolerance, but non-intolerant white male author Chuck Wendig does such a delightful Twitter takedown of Ten Rules for Novelists that it’s well worth the scroll.

Reading Roundup: October 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I was only partway through this book at my last monthly roundup, and I am happy to report that, like life, this book was exponentially more enjoyable after its characters got out of puberty. Their stories are still a little cruel, and taut with the kind of anxieties I don’t really like to think about, but Laurence and Patricia grow from beleaguered children into adults worth reading about. Perhaps it’s a better sell to say that this is not a character-driven book but a book driven by forces which take imaginative and unexpected turns. I see now why it is so beloved by women on my social feeds.

George by Alex Gino. This is a middle-grade book that my friend recently finished and recommended; I read it in one morning while I waited for his household to get up and start the day. It is a sweet and richly described story of a trans girl who yearns to be Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web, but her teachers and family don’t yet know she’s a girl. Even apart from the importance of having trans stories represented in fiction for young readers, this book has a really lovely depiction of friendship and shows a range of reactions from allies, bystanders, gatekeepers, and bullies that any kid might encounter as they try to express their best selves.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders. Okay, all right, I see it now. I was dubious after Lincoln at the Bardo but it turns out that Saunders is really sharp and witty in short stories. I think this must be partly because the short form lets you get away with leaving more unsaid: if the author never has to name what terrible memory weighs on Mikey or what actions take place in Room 6, those unmentioned horrors loom much more menacingly. And I do admire Saunders’ deft worldbuilding: without spelling out precisely where the characters are and what’s happening, he still creates vivid impressions of the lab where incarcerated criminals are subjected to pharmaceutical experiments or the Medieval Times-esque entertainment center with its own feudal system.

The Witch Elm by Tana French. So I tweeted this:

And I meant it! But then I read this review. And reader, I bought the book. I read it huddled under blankets during three of the coldest nights this month.

I’ve always admired the way Tana French gives inner life to antagonists: a woman who ghosts the protagonist of her first book becomes the speaker of her second; the rule-bending cop who pushes her too far narrates another book; his boorish nemesis is the main character of a sequel. When she takes the reins of a character who appears cold or hostile in an earlier book, they keep the mannerisms that make them so unpleasant, but in their own words they let you in a little deeper into the psychology behind their behavior. Every book is a master class in writing an unlikeable character that you end up rooting for anyway.

The main character of The Witch Elm is new to French’s fictional universe and doesn’t initially know who he has antagonized, but the reader catches glimpses from other characters who find him arrogant, oblivious, or even cruel. There are clear parallels to the sort of men who have been getting a lot of airtime in our culture currently: men who believe in the justice system even though they themselves are rarely held to account, men who defend other men because they have not seen evidence of toxic masculinity with their own eyes. (This timeliness, and more mentions than usual of texts and social media, make this novel feel more contemporary than her others–but don’t worry, time is just as much out of joint here as in the spooky suburban woods or derelict Broken Harbor.) It’s very satisfying to watch what French does with the psychology of this willful ignorance, and particularly satisfying to read her narrate a crime novel from the perspective of a suspect, who finds himself in the hands of her cool, calculating Murder Squad detectives.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. God, this book! It’s so good! It’s so weird! It’s all the mannerly fallen-from-fortune rich-people eccentricity I loved in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, with the nature worship cranked up to eleven, plus spookiness and murder.

Now I’m kind of mad because during all the legwork I did to piece together my comprehensive exam reading lists–which were admittedly light on mid-century writers but nonetheless included some of Jackson’s contemporaries like Marge Piercy and Jean Stafford–at no point did any professor, student, or previously approved list suggest that I should be including Shirley Jackson on my comps. And geez, the food scenes in this book! I tread lightly on the topic of poison in my dissertation but I could conceivably have dedicated a whole chapter to this story.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I have not played Fallout 4, but I’ve played enough Bethesda games that I still appreciated the venomous disdain with which this reviewer assesses the game’s dialogue mechanics. (Ay, I love Skyrim, but the writing makes Mass Effect: Andromeda look good!) But as a completionist and inveterate barrel-sweeper, I reveled most in the detailed description of picking up every last piece of junk from containers and corpses, until you pass your weight maximum and have to creep slowly toward a merchant or receptacle. “You can dress up as whoever you want in Fallout 4,” says the reviewer, “but you can only role-play as the trashman.”

I moved fully ten weeks ago and still feel wounded/vindicated by this parody game review which critiques the laborious process of moving apartments. I have only one bone to pick: the reviewer suggests that hiring movers is a kind of cheat that allows the moving game “to pretty much play itself.” This is only partly true! Hiring movers does greatly reduce overall gameplay hours, calculates a safer and more intuitive solution to Box Tetris, and eliminates the driving section of the game (which is not legal for me to play). For me, that makes it worth not only the cost of hired labor but the additional in-game currency of boxes and tape (as hired movers prefer not to move boxes that are only partially closed or items that have been haphazardly wrapped in blankets). However, this extends the length and complexity of the Packing and Moving In portions of the game, not to mention the time it takes to recoup your sunk costs. I’m not suggesting it’s a completely even trade-off, but it’s something to consider: the moving game sucks no matter how you play it.

Earlier this month, Tor offered a free ebook edition of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a novella that I deeply enjoyed and frequently recommend. That promotion is over, but I made a pitch to my Facebook friends for Tor’s eBook of the Month Club, and now I make it to you: I really hate subscribing to things but I really love Tor’s free eBooks. That’s how I got All the Birds in the Sky last month, Every Heart a Doorway last year, and a couple of other novellas that I haven’t finished yet but have been enjoying. You don’t have to download everything, just what you like; you do get promo emails from Tor but they are not frequent and do not annoy me; and let me emphasize that the books–which sometimes include Tor’s award-winners or best-sellers–are FREE.

Speaking of Ballad, and therefore speaking of Lovecraft: I picked up an anthology of Lovecraft’s stories years ago for my comp exams, but I gave up trying to read them because, hey, it turns out that racism is very boring and off-putting! (Don’t worry, no doctoral aspirant reads every book on their comp exam list.) Even longer ago, I tried to play a Cthulu-inspired video game on my first-generation Xbox, but I remember almost nothing about it–also boring. (Possibly also racist; I cannot say, as I didn’t play very long.) This game reviewer also finds video game adaptation of Lovecraft to be very boring and off-putting. Her suggestion is to find other ways to evoke eerieness and alien horror. I agree, but counterpoint, there is also an interesting, readable way to do Lovecraftian horror: Ballad creates a weird, scary, smart story by placing the eldritch horrors alongside the earthly, entirely too everyday horrors of racist violence.

I do not know if anyone who reads my blog needs a primer or a recap of #MeToo in the literary world. But if you’d like a reading list of books and essays that explore female subjectivity (such as Asymmetry, discussed here) or if, like me, you have read many of those books, you may enjoy seeing them appear in this big-picture summary in the New Yorker.

This is sort of a review of a new fantasy book I haven’t read, called The Poppy War, and if you do not wish to read spoilers for the book you should not click that link. If you don’t care, you may like the affectionate but critical romp through novels of the past fifty years that feature magical boarding schools and their like.

Wow wow wow–Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (one of my favorite reads last year) is being made into a TV series?!

The Offing published an appointment between the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and an analyst, pretty much designed to be Relevant To My Interests.


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.

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.