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.

On not caring if you like it

This afternoon, I visited a building across campus for a lunchtime meeting. It’s not a familiar place, so I don’t have a sense of who comes and goes during the day, but just then the lobby was fairly deserted. Even the security guard was away from his desk; in fact, he’d taken the elevator to another floor just before I got there. I pushed the button and waited.

Behind me, I heard a man say “Hey. . . you’re beautiful.”

I turned my head very slightly to look out of the corner of my eye. There wasn’t anyone else nearby, just a man seated at his ease in the small lounge area.  “Thank you,” I said with a curt nod, and faced the elevator again.

A pause, and then the man laughed ingratiatingly and said he didn’t mean any harm by it.

I didn’t answer, but I was thinking I know. And also, I don’t care what you mean.

Let’s review. I walk into a strange place and hear a man possibly addressing me. I look very carefully but not overtly to see if he was addressing me, so that if he wasn’t looking directly at me he might not see my glance and decide to target me for attention or ridicule. I then answer him coolly but politely, a tone that in my experience corresponds with a low incidence of escalation (yelling, demanding my attention, following, that sort of thing). And in the few seconds it takes for me to make nice, I have time to size up the situation and decide that the man was not using an aggressive posture or tone. More importantly, I didn’t feel that he was a threat, and after a decade of living and walking alone in major cities, I trust my instincts.

So yeah, I felt reasonably secure that he didn’t mean any harm by it. But I still don’t fucking care what he thinks. And he could just have well have kept it to himself; my day would have been better without it.

On my old blogs, some time ago, I would frequently describe my encounters with strangers out in the world: the young man who followed me to show me cat pictures on his phone, the young man who followed me until I lied that I was meeting my boyfriend for dinner, the older man who followed me while asking questions about my ethnic heritage, and so on. Early on, I didn’t have the language to deconstruct why these episodes troubled me and what they implied about the world I moved around in as a woman, so the stories would come bubbling out part complaint and part humorous vignettes: ugh, men on the street, amirite? But telling the stories helped me find words for what I could feel was wrong–it wasn’t fair that an imaginary boyfriend’s feelings mattered more than mine, that I was supposed to feel flattered but I just felt scared and angry, that neither verbal or nonverbal cues could navigate those conversations the way I wanted them to go (away from me).

I don’t usually tell these stories anymore unless they are particularly funny. I understand more of the sticky social web that strings these behaviors together with others that target women. I don’t need the catharsis as much. And, to be frank, it happens less often as I get older, fatter, and more inked. (I was wearing a modest tattoo-concealing cardigan today; I suppose that was my mistake.)

I’ve had worse, lots of us have had worse, but I’m picking on this poor mild means-no-harm guy today because he presented a textbook illustration of two capital-T TRUTHS I’ve read recently.

One is from Shakesville, in which Melissa McEwan writes about her experience walking with her husband to their car, and all the things that she sees that her husband doesn’t see. She unpacks all of the involuntary mental work she does silently: noticing a man in the parking lot, guessing his trajectory and point of interception, intuiting what he wants and whether he’s likely to be violent. To paraphrase one of the commenters, Do you have any idea how much RAM it takes to run these processes all the time? I like that metaphor: some of us, through experience, develop a few programs that hum unobtrusively in the background whenever we are in public. I’ve sometimes observed that if I walk home when my judgement is impaired–when I’m very tired, or a little drunk–I feel hyper-aware, like all my senses are escalated. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m just running these processes less elegantly, so they take over more of my perception.

The other was in the wake of some loser writing about how hot Sophia Vergara is at 42. (She is! I get it! Save it for your blog, paid writerman!) At New Republic, Rebecca Traister wrote about how sick and tired she is of male writers, male pundits, male everyone and women too weighing in on whether they think this woman or that woman is sexy. She quotes a story about Amy Poehler that Tina Fey tells in Bossypants:

Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” In Fey’s retelling, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,” forcefully informing him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

This anecdote stayed with me long after I read Bossypants, and I surely already possessed great barren fields of fucks to give, but it actually did help a great deal that I had this recent reminder. It’s an excellent mantra, and I recommend repeating it until it sticks to something, anything:

I don’t fucking care if you like it. Really, I don’t. Unless we’re dating, or good friends, or I’ve done something deliberate and spectacular to my physical appearance (fantastic makeup?) or with my physical appearance . . . perhaps this is a good time to relink to this classic Lindy West manual of when to compliment women?