Reading Roundup: November 2018

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. First, a story. At the beginning of the month I went on a hike with a dear friend. We ambled and looked at trees and ate pretzels and decided unanimously that one glorious trek up a low autumnal hill was enough for one day, and so we went to browse at a suburban Barnes and Noble. I went immediately to the J shelf in fiction and was surprised to see no copies of The Haunting of Hill House, so we went to the info desk to ask. “Oh gosh,” said the woman at the counter, “We definitely have it, and it is definitely not where it is supposed to be. Let me try to remember.” Then, looking warily at me: “Have you read any Shirley Jackson before?” Yes, I told her, I recently finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her face creased into an all-over smile, and we both exclaimed about the joy of reading that book. “Okay, I remembered,” she said, and led me to the best-seller section up front. Chatting merrily to me about what she treasured in The Haunting of Hill House, her hand hovered over the newly reprinted edition (“now on Netflix!” with the lower half of a beautiful, melancholy woman’s face) before she handed me the classic Penguin edition next to it. I told her that she had made a good choice for me. I enjoyed that shared moment of bookish joy.

Like Castle, Hill House is alternately cozy and spooky. One minute its intrepid visitors are flirting and planning a picnic, and the next minute there is screaming–you know how it is. I wrote a little more about Hill House while writing about my own weird residence.

The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin. My Amazon First Read for November. This book is written in a very colloquial, YA-y voice that is not my usual jam, so it took me a few chapters to fall into step with it. Then, suddenly, I didn’t want to put it down. Narrator MG’s elaborately curated Quirky Gal vibe gives way to a love letter to geekdom, a breathless crush, an opening longing for female friendships. Not only does all this vulnerability make her more likeable–not that likeable is a requirement!–but her desire for connection helps the plot pick up speed and weight. It’s a frothy delight of a read, and–with due warning about the straight girl’s “insider” views of drag queen culture–I think some of my nerdy friends would enjoy the ride.

Galatea by Madeline Miller. I picked up this short read to get acquainted with the author, whose retellings of classical tales have been getting positive attention. On second thought, I’m not sure a Kindle Single is the best way to get to know a writer’s voice. But I did appreciate this reimagining of the Pygmalion myth, told from the perspective of the statue who finds herself magicked into being and simultaneously made a wife, mother, and prisoner.

Waiting by Ha Jin. At first, I was captivated by the book’s detailed rendering of its settings. Wherever the main characters go, whoever they speak with, the narrator trains a wide-angle lens on their scenery and makes note of what plants grow there, where the ambient sounds come from, whether there are ducks. The effect is to slow the pace of the story almost to a crawl–which is appropriate, given its title and decades-long timespan–but it was also pleasantly evocative, like experiencing the storytelling through little watercolor paintings. The setting is China after the Cultural Revolution; time moves very slowly in the rural village where one main character is from, and barely much faster in the dreary routine at the army hospital. Toward the end, the pacing began to grate on me as it grated on its characters. At one point I realized that the experience was similar to reading Anna Karenina: once the romance and urgency of the affair has given way to the unbearable everydayness of social shunning, it becomes a different reading experience. I have no doubt that the resemblance is intentional–Anna Karenina is mentioned by name several times when characters discuss books, although the Russian novel’s status is somewhat questionable in their era and the characters don’t go into depth on their thoughts or feelings about it.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. A quick aside. With some 30 under 30 list or another recently circulated, my social media feeds have been blowing up with the usual counterarguments: this famous author didn’t publish until they were x years old; that famous book was rejected by y publishers before it became a bestseller; etc. All good points! The most compelling response I’ve seen is this lovely Tumblr post enumerating all the years Terry Pratchett spent writing as a journalist and novelist before he penned his most beloved books. Discworld is not my bag–I’ve read one, maybe two of the novels–but it’s clear the man knew what he was about, and it softens my crusty post-academic heart to think of writing as a practice, of years spent writing commercially as just another way of developing a voice, of all my seemingly pointless blurbs and blogs sharpening me like a pencil.

This was very much on my mind as I finished Fates and Furies, a glossy, sweeping saga of a book that opens up two-thirds of the way through and expels a second, darker book, both dripping with flowery descriptions and ornamental set pieces. It’s ambitious and over the top and should not work, but it works and I couldn’t put it down. But I delayed reading this book for a long time because I deeply disliked the author’s first novel, which read like it was published too soon after an MFA program and would have benefited from languishing in a drawer for a few more years. But by Fates, a third novel, the author seems to have settled into her own voice, which is intimate and conversational, and while the story has its familiar themes (the life-after-college, the great-woman-behind-every-great-man) it is also surprising, weird, and great fun to read.

Elsewhere on the Internet

When I was skimming over my Twitter likes and retweets for last month’s roundup, I somehow skipped over this Buzzfeed reflection on Practical Magic, which is 20 years old this year. This was an error and a crime, because the article is beautifully written, has some stunning .gifs from the film, and of course it is extremely relevant to my interests. Only last year I read Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her earlier novel in which you find out more about the romantic tragedies that befell Aunts Jet and Frances (and Uncle Vincent, whose story only sort of explains why no one thought to mention him in the first book). I rewatched Practical Magic around the same time, and it remains an absolute delight: romance, revenge, sisterhood, mysterious and beautiful visual effects, everything you could want in a witchy film. It does surpass either book in terms of telling a good, tight story. On the other hand, the Magic books explore the themes of how trauma and power can travel through generations of a family–something a film doesn’t really have time to do–and it’s good sexy fun in any case, so I’m not not recommending a reread if you’re missing October’s witchy vibes.

Monique Truong, who wrote one of my favorite books of all time (The Book of Salt), was asked to write an essay to accompany travel photographs taken by museum curators. She wrote this, which the museum thought did not represent their curators in a positive light, so she published it elsewhere, and oh man is it gorgeously written and scathingly critical.

It is occasionally my duty to write pithy taglines–or at the very least, clickworthy email headers–and I do enjoy it, although I don’t believe it is my greatest talent. (As you know, my professional experience favors titles that tell you want they are!) I did like reading a little more about writing punchy copy from the lady who charges $960/hour for Instagram quotes and other services.

A celebration of Elizabeth Gaskell and female friendships? I’m already there.

I don’t like to give even indirect clicks to white male author intolerance, but non-intolerant white male author Chuck Wendig does such a delightful Twitter takedown of Ten Rules for Novelists that it’s well worth the scroll.


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