Reading Roundup: October 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. I was only partway through this book at my last monthly roundup, and I am happy to report that, like life, this book was exponentially more enjoyable after its characters got out of puberty. Their stories are still a little cruel, and taut with the kind of anxieties I don’t really like to think about, but Laurence and Patricia grow from beleaguered children into adults worth reading about. Perhaps it’s a better sell to say that this is not a character-driven book but a book driven by forces which take imaginative and unexpected turns. I see now why it is so beloved by women on my social feeds.

George by Alex Gino. This is a middle-grade book that my friend recently finished and recommended; I read it in one morning while I waited for his household to get up and start the day. It is a sweet and richly described story of a trans girl who yearns to be Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web, but her teachers and family don’t yet know she’s a girl. Even apart from the importance of having trans stories represented in fiction for young readers, this book has a really lovely depiction of friendship and shows a range of reactions from allies, bystanders, gatekeepers, and bullies that any kid might encounter as they try to express their best selves.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders. Okay, all right, I see it now. I was dubious after Lincoln at the Bardo but it turns out that Saunders is really sharp and witty in short stories. I think this must be partly because the short form lets you get away with leaving more unsaid: if the author never has to name what terrible memory weighs on Mikey or what actions take place in Room 6, those unmentioned horrors loom much more menacingly. And I do admire Saunders’ deft worldbuilding: without spelling out precisely where the characters are and what’s happening, he still creates vivid impressions of the lab where incarcerated criminals are subjected to pharmaceutical experiments or the Medieval Times-esque entertainment center with its own feudal system.

The Witch Elm by Tana French. So I tweeted this:

And I meant it! But then I read this review. And reader, I bought the book. I read it huddled under blankets during three of the coldest nights this month.

I’ve always admired the way Tana French gives inner life to antagonists: a woman who ghosts the protagonist of her first book becomes the speaker of her second; the rule-bending cop who pushes her too far narrates another book; his boorish nemesis is the main character of a sequel. When she takes the reins of a character who appears cold or hostile in an earlier book, they keep the mannerisms that make them so unpleasant, but in their own words they let you in a little deeper into the psychology behind their behavior. Every book is a master class in writing an unlikeable character that you end up rooting for anyway.

The main character of The Witch Elm is new to French’s fictional universe and doesn’t initially know who he has antagonized, but the reader catches glimpses from other characters who find him arrogant, oblivious, or even cruel. There are clear parallels to the sort of men who have been getting a lot of airtime in our culture currently: men who believe in the justice system even though they themselves are rarely held to account, men who defend other men because they have not seen evidence of toxic masculinity with their own eyes. (This timeliness, and more mentions than usual of texts and social media, make this novel feel more contemporary than her others–but don’t worry, time is just as much out of joint here as in the spooky suburban woods or derelict Broken Harbor.) It’s very satisfying to watch what French does with the psychology of this willful ignorance, and particularly satisfying to read her narrate a crime novel from the perspective of a suspect, who finds himself in the hands of her cool, calculating Murder Squad detectives.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. God, this book! It’s so good! It’s so weird! It’s all the mannerly fallen-from-fortune rich-people eccentricity I loved in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, with the nature worship cranked up to eleven, plus spookiness and murder.

Now I’m kind of mad because during all the legwork I did to piece together my comprehensive exam reading lists–which were admittedly light on mid-century writers but nonetheless included some of Jackson’s contemporaries like Marge Piercy and Jean Stafford–at no point did any professor, student, or previously approved list suggest that I should be including Shirley Jackson on my comps. And geez, the food scenes in this book! I tread lightly on the topic of poison in my dissertation but I could conceivably have dedicated a whole chapter to this story.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I have not played Fallout 4, but I’ve played enough Bethesda games that I still appreciated the venomous disdain with which this reviewer assesses the game’s dialogue mechanics. (Ay, I love Skyrim, but the writing makes Mass Effect: Andromeda look good!) But as a completionist and inveterate barrel-sweeper, I reveled most in the detailed description of picking up every last piece of junk from containers and corpses, until you pass your weight maximum and have to creep slowly toward a merchant or receptacle. “You can dress up as whoever you want in Fallout 4,” says the reviewer, “but you can only role-play as the trashman.”

I moved fully ten weeks ago and still feel wounded/vindicated by this parody game review which critiques the laborious process of moving apartments. I have only one bone to pick: the reviewer suggests that hiring movers is a kind of cheat that allows the moving game “to pretty much play itself.” This is only partly true! Hiring movers does greatly reduce overall gameplay hours, calculates a safer and more intuitive solution to Box Tetris, and eliminates the driving section of the game (which is not legal for me to play). For me, that makes it worth not only the cost of hired labor but the additional in-game currency of boxes and tape (as hired movers prefer not to move boxes that are only partially closed or items that have been haphazardly wrapped in blankets). However, this extends the length and complexity of the Packing and Moving In portions of the game, not to mention the time it takes to recoup your sunk costs. I’m not suggesting it’s a completely even trade-off, but it’s something to consider: the moving game sucks no matter how you play it.

Earlier this month, Tor offered a free ebook edition of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a novella that I deeply enjoyed and frequently recommend. That promotion is over, but I made a pitch to my Facebook friends for Tor’s eBook of the Month Club, and now I make it to you: I really hate subscribing to things but I really love Tor’s free eBooks. That’s how I got All the Birds in the Sky last month, Every Heart a Doorway last year, and a couple of other novellas that I haven’t finished yet but have been enjoying. You don’t have to download everything, just what you like; you do get promo emails from Tor but they are not frequent and do not annoy me; and let me emphasize that the books–which sometimes include Tor’s award-winners or best-sellers–are FREE.

Speaking of Ballad, and therefore speaking of Lovecraft: I picked up an anthology of Lovecraft’s stories years ago for my comp exams, but I gave up trying to read them because, hey, it turns out that racism is very boring and off-putting! (Don’t worry, no doctoral aspirant reads every book on their comp exam list.) Even longer ago, I tried to play a Cthulu-inspired video game on my first-generation Xbox, but I remember almost nothing about it–also boring. (Possibly also racist; I cannot say, as I didn’t play very long.) This game reviewer also finds video game adaptation of Lovecraft to be very boring and off-putting. Her suggestion is to find other ways to evoke eerieness and alien horror. I agree, but counterpoint, there is also an interesting, readable way to do Lovecraftian horror: Ballad creates a weird, scary, smart story by placing the eldritch horrors alongside the earthly, entirely too everyday horrors of racist violence.

I do not know if anyone who reads my blog needs a primer or a recap of #MeToo in the literary world. But if you’d like a reading list of books and essays that explore female subjectivity (such as Asymmetry, discussed here) or if, like me, you have read many of those books, you may enjoy seeing them appear in this big-picture summary in the New Yorker.

This is sort of a review of a new fantasy book I haven’t read, called The Poppy War, and if you do not wish to read spoilers for the book you should not click that link. If you don’t care, you may like the affectionate but critical romp through novels of the past fifty years that feature magical boarding schools and their like.

Wow wow wow–Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (one of my favorite reads last year) is being made into a TV series?!

The Offing published an appointment between the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and an analyst, pretty much designed to be Relevant To My Interests.



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