Reading Roundup: July/August

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

Books worth reading on the couch

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

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

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

Books to read in bars

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

Books to read on the road

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

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

Books on my nightstand (in progress)

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

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

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Books by women I re-read and loved in 2015

I spent most of 2015 working on my dissertation, so I didn’t have a ton of extra time for reading new books–but during this process, I re-read a number of books I first encountered years ago. Man, do I ever love the books I am writing about. These novels continue to be my favorites!

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. This 1933 novel follows a young couple who are active with a socialist group in the Great Depression. They struggle with their relative privilege in a time of privation, and flail a bit as they search for meaningful work–hey, rather like we do in the present day! The novel is frequently very funny–if you enjoyed skewering the left-leaning male intellectual in The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. then you’ll be amused at the comedic lack of self-awareness the Marxist men display here–but it is also bitterly sad, particularly in light of how modern and unchanged so much of it feels.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ve read this maybe twice before, but I re-read it in one day and cried a little anyway. This novel is about a girl who develops the ability to taste emotions in food. When her mother bakes her a birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by her mother’s sadness and helplessness, and she turns to junk food to disconnect herself from these too-intimate insights into the emotional landscapes around her. As she gets older, she learns to manage it and can sort out the tastes of the tomato farmers and herb growers in a marinara sauce. It’s a whimsical premise taken quite seriously, and the result is a commentary not only on how we eat but how interconnected our lives are, how much we need those connections, but how hard it is to bear them.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This novel has nothing to do with anything I was working on. I just had a hankering for something familiar in which I could learn something new, as is so often the case when one re-reads Middlemarch. Daniel Deronda was written later in Eliot’s life and, perhaps oddly, seems more morally rigid: Grandcourt is simply wicked without any of Bulstrode’s philantropy; Daniel and Rachel are pure and virtuous without Dorothea’s pride or character growth. But despite that and despite the book’s length, I was once again completely absorbed by Gwendolen’s rise and fall, Daniel’s yearning for a sense of cultural belonging, and all the glittering detail of their rather glamorous lives.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I must have read this book three or four times already, but what happens is that any time I pick it up to look for a certain quote or flesh out my notes for a chapter, I then get sucked in and read it all over again. It’s not a long read; it’s lush with description of venerable old houses and dazzling ballgowns and trembling lips or curls, but despite all that it moves like a police procedural through the stages of malaise and marital deception. Chapters end on the cusp of crisis–does May know, or doesn’t she?! Will Ellen stay, or won’t she?!–and you must keep reading. And despite all that, it’s still as tender and moving and unforgiving a portrait of romantic love as I’ve ever read. No wonder it won Wharton a Pulitzer.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Another book I’ve read half a dozen times, in part because I used to assign the novel to my college composition class. The comp textbook was themed around popular culture–advertising, narrative media, political journalism, etc.–so from there we would move to Atwood’s dystopian vision of a corporatocratic future, in which society is stratified into those who work for multinational companies (and live safely on their insular compounds) and those who live outside and have little choice but to consume the food and clothes and media these companies provide. In the character of Jimmy, who we see grow from a sweet little boy to an entitled but deeply inseure man to the seemingly sole survivor of an apocalyptic event, the novel makes a biting critique of toxic masculinity, late capitalism its compulsory consumerism, and climate change denialism all at once.
The sequels to this novel are not quite so sharp or compelling, but I think I’ll have to re-read those too just to stay in this world a little longer.

Not a novel, but I have to give a shout-out to Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo. First published in 1993, this book seems a little dated in some respects, such as its persistent concern with anorexia as a metaphor. But its sharp observations about bodies and capitalism, feminine beauty standards, and the shifts in cultural attitudes toward body size are still terrifyingly relevant, and I continually appreciate Bordo’s consistent if brief acknowledgements of how individuals of different races, genders, and cultural identifications negotiate these standards differently. More on this blog.

And if you missed it: books I read for the first time and loved in 2015!

Elsewhere on the Internet: A little help from your friends

Tweeted by Jonathan Davies

Tweeted by Jonathan Davies

Melville House posted Margaret Atwood’s rhymed rejection of solicitations to blurb new books, which is great fun. As someone who frequently solicits blurbs for my press’s books, occasionally taking quite a long shot to do so, I very rarely get no for an answer and never mind when I do–unless the no started out as a yes and then dragged out beyond the ample schedule I provided.

To clarify, by blurb I mean quoted praise, also known as puffery. (Some people use blurb to denote the book description–which is what I call copy.) In Helpful Definitions for Modern Authors (NYTimes Opinionator), Steve Macone snarkily defines the word blurb as “the sound made by an author paying back a favor.”

Mental Floss describes  Ezra Pound’s proto-Kickstarter fundraiser which underwrote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (It would have been worth mentioning, I think, that Pound also re-wrote much of The Waste Land!) I have no great love for Ezra Pound’s poetry, politics, or philosophy, but I am quite fond of stories of his philantropy (such as it is). Pound’s greater talent was for shepherding poetic talent into the public light; without him we would never had made so much of Eliot or Langston Hughes among others. His friendship with William Carlos Williams was inspiration to the latter (c.f. “Transitional”) and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is smattered with stories of Pound tenderly nursing poets in various stages of dissipation.

Unrelated to the theme, but fun: Mental Floss also tipped me off to the existence of a classic game archive which includes a 1982 version of The Hobbit, if you’re in Tolkein Immersion Mode right now, and Adventure, in which I spent countless hours as a youth lost among twisty little passages.

 

Books by women I’ve read in 2013

At Flavorwire, Lilit Marcus explains why she only read books by women in 2013:

I’m a writer. When my book, Save the Assistants, came out in 2011, all I wanted was for other people to read it. So it seemed only logical to repay the favor. Most of my favorite writers – Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf – are women, albeit dead ones. So, with nods to Joanna Russ and Tallulah Bankhead, I vowed to spend 2013 being an audience. An audience for female writers only.

The reference to Joanna Russ is in regard to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing; the nod to Tallulah Bankhead for the line “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
It’s a good read; Marcus name-checks some of the books that particularly moved her (several of which I also read and loved) and describes the subtle ways this literary diet impacted her worldview, leading her to vow to read books by other similarly under-sung authors next year.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (especially anyone I’ve dated) that reading books by women is my usual modus operandi. I don’t refuse to read books by men, but at some point in college I just got weary of the overcelebration of white male authors, and being of a contrary nature decided not to bother with the John Updikes and Philip Roths of the world. Eventually I had to read some books by them for my qualifying exams, and came to a similar conclusion as Marcus does in her piece: I wasn’t missing much. You can’t read all of the books, and I choose to primarily read books by women.

Anyone who wants to see what I’ve read and reviewed is welcome to my Booklikes shelf, but half the fun of these year-end lists is in revisiting the pleasures of reading all over again. Thus I present, in chronological order, some of the best books by women I read in 2013:

  • The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, which I write about in more detail at my food blog.
  • The glorious Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, hot on the heels of having read Bring up the Bodies. So many retellings of Henry VIII’s reign amount to no more than a tittering reanimation of starcrossed love and political intrigue. Mantel is interested less in scandal than in what it meant to be a subject in this period–literally a subject of the king, yet also a sovereign individual self who desires and dissembles. And the writing is so precise and so good!
  • Bloodroot, by Amy Greene, was spell-binding. One tires of reading novels about domestic abuse, particular those that sanctify the victim and imagine violence an inherent quality of Southern Otherness, but this book does neither. It tells its particular story with intensity, beauty, and a little magic.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Coming of age after environmental disasters have knocked Earth’s rotation off-kilter, causing the days to lengthen incredibly and the Earth to wither under an intense sun.
  • I loved every single short story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, which is an astonishing record for me. She writes fantastical worlds and uncanny hungers that are quite realistic and compelling.
  • I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shortly after getting an e-reader several years ago, but somehow I’d never read anything by Anne Bronte until now. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a great discovery!
  • I enjoyed the final book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, though if you haven’t read Oryx & Crake, I strongly, strongly recommend getting that one first. Much of the fun of the last book is in the loose ends it ties up for recurring characters.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker was a tough read for someone who has or is struggling with depression and/or academia. Stories of unfinished dissertations are the worst, except when they are the best. (See also Middlemarch, below.) But it’s also a story of family and love and self-definition and what we have the right to expect from others, and quite beautifully written.
  • I read Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, as though it were a good novel: cover to cover, enjoying every minute.
  • Likewise, I was excited to get my copy of Getting Lucky, poems by Nicole Steinberg, even though I had seen many of them before; they are great fun and quite smart. Blogged about it here and here!
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki had that same elegiac, pastiched feel that I enjoyed from My Year of Meats, but a little more magic.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is epic in scope and various in texture. It encompasses the arc of Ifemelu from growing up in Nigeria to attending school in America and eventually returning home a changed woman; excerpts of her blog about race in America, in a quite different tone from the lyrical narration of her story; and the arc of her high school sweetheart Obinze as he travels to England and back, also told in a quite different tone, almost sepia as if Ifemelu’s narrator is retelling Obinze’s story from memory. This book was riveting and I cannot recommend it enough. It would be an incredible literature course assignment too, I think.
  • Finally, although I read it for the first time not long ago, I started re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot after enjoying the banter of The Toast’s Middlemarch book club. I meant to read section by section, not getting too far ahead of the book club conversations, but I literally cannot stop. I love this novel so much.

 

 

So that the male authors do not feel left out, I read and kind of liked Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski and The Dinner by Herman Koch–both translations of foreign novels, interestingly–as well as The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. One male-authored book I truly loved this year was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. But those guys don’t need my help in promoting them; the apparatus is already calibrated toward their advancement.