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.

 

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