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.

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Books I read and loved in 2016

I know, it is certainly not 2016 anymore. And I know, my end-of-year roundup is usually Books By Women I Loved (in 2013, 2014, and 2015). You’ll see below that I still mostly read books by women. But I also set a goal two years in a row to make my reading list less white and less heterosexual, so this is an all-inclusive list of Books I Loved in 2016.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Charming, whimsical, melancholy. It’s one of the first books I read after I turned in my dissertation draft, and I blogged about its food scenes. I just recently watched the film adaptation with Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, and a young Henry Cavill–lovely.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm.  This novel was created in a lab for me. It’s a mystery–an art history mystery!–that centers on a Southern girl who moves up north to study art and then things get really complicated and she’s on the lam, hiding out in an antiques restoration shop. It’s suspenseful–I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop–but also makes some really smart observations about class differences and education.

The Marriage of Elinor by Margaret Oliphant. I read Miss Marjoribanks by the same author in 2015, but didn’t even mention it on my book roundup; it was pleasant but not love at first read. Now I think I underestimated Margaret Oliphant. A Scottish lady who was writing around the same time as my loves George Eliot and M. E. Braddon, Oliphant offers marriage plots that get turned on their heads. In The Marriage of Elinor, Elinor falls for a sexy but dishonorable man and marries him even though everyone tells her not to. She has some rough times with him, but neither party experiences untimely death or protracted horrors as you’d might expect from Victorian fiction. Nor are the trials of her marriage left unspoken, as with the ill-fated matches made by lesser characters in Jane Austen’s books. No, Elinor leaves her no-good husband and lives to tell the tale–to her cousin, who is in love with her but never marries her because she really doesn’t think of him that way. Elinor gave me new respect for Miss Marjoribanks, who spends her novel putting off marriage until the last possible page, since she likes her life just fine as the only daughter of a widower, mistress of the house, and thrower of the neighborhood’s best parties.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how it came to pass that I’d never read this book before; it’s frequently mentioned in literary studies of food, since the novel is very much preoccupied with growing, eating, and starving. It was a brutal read but actually helped me get through a chunk of dissertation revisions. Whenever I was dragging my feet on revisions, I would read a few chapters; when I felt overwhelmed by page after page of famine, I embraced my revisions with open arms. It’s a well-written and engrossing book, I was into it and I’m glad I read it, but it’s bleak.

Faithful Place, by Tana French. I’ve put off reading Tana French because way too many people told me I should, and I get prim and fussy about books that are loved by many. But this book was a highly enjoyable page-turner, gritty detective fiction set in Dublin and embellished with some needed nuance for the “pretty dead girl” trope.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien was every bit as masterfully crafted and moving as I had been told it would be.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle,  which is a short and riveting revision of “The Horror of Red Hook” by H.P. Lovecraft. I never got too far reading Lovecraft, but I was deeply engrossed in LaValle’s version, which includes vivid description of Harlem in its Renaissance, some pretty convincing eldritch horrors, and an unmistakeable callout to police violence today. Bonus: I read the last half of the book in a coffee shop which happened to be playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as I approached the violent and horrifying climax. Awful things kept happening on the page and the music kept getting faster and faster. I don’t have a habit of listening to music while reading, but the background made this book even more memorable.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This book was so unsettling and so deeply absorbing. Everyone knows that Butler is an incredible writer and world-builder but it’s kind of easy to take that for granted until you spend the length of a novel conveniently forgetting that the sensible, empathetic, charismatic, and sensual narrator is, to all human perceptions, a black girl child. It’s kind of messed up, because black girl children are continually hypersexualized and perceived as dangerous by our culture. But if anyone was going to make this protagonist work, it would be Butler. And although I’m not much of a vampire reader, I devoured this weird book quickly.

Emma and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper. I wasn’t sure I loved this book, but I am still thinking about it months later, so I think I do. It’s maybe a little precious, a term I have been taught to hate by male professors who prefer words like muscular or lean to describe prose. But this book is plenty lean, and its smalltown characters and their epic quests have left an indelible mark on me.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. One of those books you think you’ve read but have only read about, right? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed and became wrapped up in this book. Epistolary novels are not usually my jam.

The Winged Histories, by Sofia Samatar. I adore this book and I want everyone to read it.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I picked this up at a used book sale before the whole tempest about the author’s identity stirred up. Many of my fellow Toast commenters sang high praise of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and it was easy for me to see why: the prose is masterfully crafted, packed with sensory detail but narrated at a fluid, natural pace that doesn’t get bogged down in description. I read it quickly and appreciated its craft, but I wasn’t sure that I loved it until toward the end. The main characters’ relationship is so fascinating and harrowing that it comes as a great relief when they start to be more kind than competitive, yet that shift takes place just as adulthood opens up a big can of hot mess on both. This novel, the first in a trilogy, ends on a cliffhanger that I found deliciously motivating rather than frustrating. I look forward to reading the next!

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Another book I picked up from a used book sale. The book grabbed me by its intro, which mixes pop culture and scifi/fantasy references with historical details from the Dominican Republic and a little bit of magic and curses. How does that even work? How is it possible that the first chapters describe the life and times of a teenaged boy whose defining tragedy is an inability to get laid? How can a book be so well-written and finely imagined that it managed to sell me on the story I am least interested in hearing?  But Junot Diaz made Oscar’s story gripping, not pathetic. And I’m glad I stuck with him, because Oscar’s story gave way to stories about his mother, his sister, his grandmother, their lives together and apart, in the States and in the Dominican Republic, living in a political climate that I can’t even imagine but may soon have to, surviving unbelievable, almost supernatural events. I could not put this book down and I felt that I understood, in the end, how it all came together.

Honorable mentions:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. I love Susan Bordo, and I will always have a weakness for Tudor history, and I very much enjoyed the first section of the book which traces some popular myths and interpretations of Anne back to their very dubious sources. The first book alone would qualify as a Book I Loved! But I was less in love with Bordo’s interpretations of popular TV and movie Annes, which tiptoed a little into “The thing about youth culture is I don’t understand it” territory.

At the same time I downloaded The Ballad of Black Tom, I also downloaded Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. Two imaginative, accessible fantasy fictions that only didn’t become Books I Loved because they were so short and fast. Honestly, though, if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy reader and looking to expand your horizons, you cannot go wrong by reading everything Nnedi Okorafor ever wrote.

The Role, by Richard Pearson.  I have a confession. I am a little mulish, sometimes, about reading my friends’ writing. I am not sure why; perhaps I’m defensive about about my book selection after years of required reading, or perhaps I am accustomed to books being books–I still feel surprised when books reveal their living human authors. But after being a bad friend for a year, I finally read my best friend’s first novel and adored it. It sounds just like him: funny and self-deprecating yet passionate and thoughtful. It takes you backstage during a new production and lord have mercy, if you’ve ever done an “experimental” play in college or beyond, you will find yourself in this story.

I can’t believe I managed to read so many wonderful books in the final year of my dissertation. I think that this year I’ll start posting monthly about books I’ve read. As pleasant as it is to effuse about books I love, I’m missing the chance to talk about books I only felt “meh” about, or books that I might have loved but felt betrayed by.

 

A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

As noted, I am a fan of the push to #readwomen2014. Now that VIDA has released their Count for 2013 (a breakdown of how many male or female writers are published or reviewed by leading literary publications), it’s clear that calling for change in concrete terms (such as quantity of reviews and reviewers) can indeed be effective, and considering the way the #readwomen2014 hashtag has taken off, I am very excited to see the numbers–for book sales as well as for VIDA’s count–this time next year.

But I would be remiss not to mention Roxane Gay’s count, brought to my attention again in a recent essay by Aimee Phan. In 2012, Roxane and her graduate assistant combed through book reviews in the New York Times–just the Times, because it took an enormous amount of time and energy to research–to see how many non-white writers were reviewed in that extremely-difficult-to-get-reviewed-in publication. Their results:

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

If you need a visual, she provided a pie chart that makes the point astonishing clear. Aimee Phan’s article elaborates on the problem–reviews can play a critical role not only in publicizing a book but showing readers [at least one way of] how to read it. If writers of color aren’t getting reviewed, then they aren’t getting read as often or as well.

The bulk of my reading these recent years have been wallet-friendly free Kindle classics–my already-read-by-women-2014 list heavily features 19th century lady authors–but I really love new fiction. I love reading a book that was written in the now, and I love reading a book that is accompanied by a little splash of publicity, so I can share the experience of having read it with others. When I am looking for a brand-new book to enjoy, deliberately choosing books written by women comes easily and naturally to me. Deliberately choosing books written by writers of color sometimes requires more work on my part, as the abovementioned statistics plus my own media intake cottoned by privilege make it less likely that I will come across publicity for these books.

All the more reason, then, to share with my few readers the books by writers of color that I have loved in the last year or two.  If these books aren’t being reviewed, then let me tell you about them so that you’ll want to read them. If you’ve read them, then let’s talk about them.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve raved about this book before, but since there were several commenters in a recent Toast thread who claimed that they hadn’t yet started the book due to its imposing size and subject, let me tell you what I told them: it is great fun to read. It is thoughtful and painful, but it is also engaging and accessible, with sex and romance and enjoyable snapshots of intellectual (and pseudointellectual!) life and more. (Also, as I was writing, this post in praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared in my feedreader. She is deservedly on fire)
  • I am going to include Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi because I re-read it in the last year, and because I pre-ordered her forthcoming book Boy, Snow, Bird the second I heard about it. Her books tend to dwell in abstract, archetypal themes that are well-suited to the folklore and fairytales she draws on. Mr. Fox‘s narrative skips gleefully between mid-20th century and once-upon-a-time, and between Europe and Africa. She genderswaps characters when she feels like it (I particularly enjoyed the finishing school for husbands); the fluidity of identity is part of her point.
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I don’t usually enjoy when writers write about writing, but I do when Ruth Ozeki does. Like me, main character Ruth finds writing painful and foggy and frustrating, and she gets lost down rabbit holes of Googling for answers, but she can’t stop because when you get there, you can create something that has a measurable impact.
    I also often recommend My Year of Meats, which is a treasure box of textual and imagery gems. I’m so glad she introduced me to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and I often think about her Midwestern host family pouring two liters of Coke over a roast and her Japanese assistant preparing a light batter out of the kudzu that has conquered Mississippi.
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. This is a book of poetry but as I noted on my Books By Women post, I read it like a novel. I got interested in her work by way of this lovely simple reflection on living paycheck to paycheck, but the overall arch of the book is one of nostalgia.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorakor. You have most likely enjoyed at least one (but probably several) series of books starring a young person who realizes his or her latent magical powers and goes off to some kind of school to learn how to use them. That happens to Sunny, but her story takes place in Nigeria, and her magic is a rich mix of ideas I recognize from other magical fiction and some I recognize from research for my voodoo tour in New Orleans. This is YA fic and a fast read.
  • The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan. A Pakistan paleontologist and his granddaughter who finds a key fossil in the identification of an ancient whale species struggle to pursue their scientific passions as the Creationist party gains power.

Special mentions: I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (which Aimee Phan mentions in her essay) quite a few years ago, but it is one of my all-time favorite novels and was great fun to teach in class. Unrequited love and the loneliness of being an expat in Paris, cooking for Gertrude Stein! Gorgeous, gorgeous descriptions of cooking and communicating across cultural lines. I also taught Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat in that class; Danticat, like Oyeyemi, started writing fully-grown books at an insanely young age, and just about anything you pick up by her will be lovely and lonely and moving. Breath centers the struggles of a young ex-pat woman with her overbearing mother, her national identity, her eating disorder, and her sexuality–conflicts inseparably connected.

Another few special mentions. Today is International Women’s Day, the hashtag is all about celebrating women writers, and as Roxane Gay’s count shows, woman of color are being reviewed less than white women and less than men of color. But I know a fair number of my peers are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction, so these novels by gentlemen of color are worth mentioning. You’re into the genre of young people discovering latent magic or the mystical powers of the universe unseen by the average human? So what if instead of young people they are older black ex-cons and ex-addicts trying to correct the mistakes of their past, and they band up in a rich man’s house to do paranormal investigation, and then they have to save the world? I don’t know, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is hard to explain but I ate it up. If you love Poe except for the racism, you might get a kick out of Pym by Mat Johnson. To be frank I didn’t love the execution of this book as much as I love the premise, but it does pose a tragihilarious answer to the mystery of what happens at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And if you’d like a searching, philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse or just want to read about New York City in ruin, you might enjoy Zone One by Colson Whitehead. I never miss a chance to rave about Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, an alternate history which imagines midcentury culture if the elevator had been considered America’s crowning technological achievement (with all its metaphorical resonances of rising up) instead of the automobile. That’s the kind of Big Idea book I will never come up with, and it is well-written and extremely teachable to boot.