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.

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