Reading Roundup: December 2018

Happy entire-week-off-because-I-work-at-a-university to me! Although the month is not yet over–and although I’m likely to finish another book sometime during the interminable airport waits between flights home–I am going to post my roundup before I enter…. the liminal space between winter holidays.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Although most of the books I acquire are serendipitous–discounted or used books I come across by chance–I’ve also started keeping a phone list of new books I’ve vetted and would like to buy from brick-and-mortar stores when I have the money and opportunity. Pachinko was the first book I bought from the brand-new bookstore in my neighborhood when they opened on December 1. It’s been on my wishlist since I heard of it: although I probably wouldn’t put the author’s previous book, Free Food for Millionaires, on my year-end lists of Books I Loved, I still think about it often: Casey’s dress-like-a-column advice, her tactile pleasure in creating hats, the titular scenes of Wall Street entitlement.
I think Pachinko will impress itself on me in much the same way. Like Free Food, it invents memorable characters and tells their stories in such a way that feels organic and original even as they carry out the novel’s elegantly simple theme. When it ended, I felt cheated for a moment–I’d been with the novel’s central family for several generations at that point, and it felt like their decades of struggle should have led up to a big boss conflict, a dramatic death or triumph. But a saga that opens with the line “History has failed us, but no matter” could not have tied up its narrative with a neat bow. The dramatic deaths and triumphs are scattered throughout, and both characters and readers are left to make sense of history on their own.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. A friend brought this to my house with the intent to lend it to me. This was a bold move for two reasons. For one, I don’t take reading recommendations well–a vestige of the year I spent compiling lists and reading 150+ books, some canon-approved and some not, for my qualifying exams. No one can tell me what to read now. Also, I am absolutely dreadful at taking care of books; few escape without stains and tears from their perilous journeys in my tote bag. But this book turned out to be a quick, delightful read and I’m glad she lent it to me.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel. I coaxed a sizeable group of friends to see the recent Melissa McCarthy movie with me on a vague promise of literary crimes and vintage gay New York. Other than burying my face in my gentleman’s shoulder during any scene which endangered a cat’s life (a little too close to home!), I loved the film. Loved Lee’s pivotal friendship with the mysterious Jack Hock, loved the meticulous care with which Lee gently toasted old paper so that it appeared aged, and purchased vintage typewriters to achieve the correct typefaces for her forged letters. My friends were a little more ambivalent than I was, citing the bleakness of Lee’s self-imposed loneliness and writers’ block as well as the brutal grief of losing her cat.
Visiting New Hope for a writer’s retreat earlier in the month, I dropped into the splendid Farley’s Bookshop and picked up Lee’s memoir of her literary forgeries. It’s a frightfully slim book. Given the scarcity of the source material, the film was fairly faithful: some cats and booksellers were merged into composites for narrative simplicity, and the film made Hock present and complicit in some of Lee’s meanspirited pranks. Some of Lee’s best forgeries are reproduced in the book, along with her insights into famous writers’ idiosyncrasies of voice and type.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Not my usual link fare, but my mind was blown by this Smithsonian report on how much Confederate monuments cost taxpayers to protect and maintain.

Columbia Journalism Review, What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?

I liked Earther’s coverage of Frankenstein and Dracula back when that was my beat, and I appreciate that the author picked up that thread and looked at climate change monsters in contemporary sci-fi books and movies.

Aw yissss, scathing book reviews! I had already read Andrea Long Chu’s delicious vivisection of Jill Soloway’s She Wants It, which is excerpted here. Chu has since somewhat fallen from favor with Literary Twitter because of her divisive New York Times op-ed about her impending sex reassignment surgery. I learned a great deal from the discourse that followed it, and have nothing consequential to add to it–but I think, regardless, that Chu’s precise takedown of Soloway’s particular brand is a public service.

Typing “delicious” in the context of a scathing review reminded me of a Daniel Ortberg’s delightful “It’s Every Character You Find in an 18th-Century Period Film,” which may just be the thing that gets me to willingly subscribe to an e-newsletter for the first time in my entire life.

Be-Lipsticked Fop Man Whose Feminine Presentation Belies Vicious Misogyny

always calling upsetting stuff “delicious,” definitely the first one to say anything after a painful or terrifying silence

In my profession, short and punchy sentences are valuable and effective. In my personal writing, I tend to unwind long and rambling sentences, and a great deal of my revision process entails breaking them apart like strands of spaghetti. But I feel emboldened by this lyrical paean to the long, musical sentence. I suppose the key is to write so the reader isn’t thinking about sentences at all.

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two.

In mid-December, I spent a lovely weekend in a cozy carriage house with my best friend from college; we were there to write, but we also cooked and poured ourselves whiskey and talked for hours. In talking one morning, we rambled from Mary Shelley to the Year Without A Summer to Persuasion, a novel Jane Austen wrote when the rainy Year Without A Summer kept her indoors. I leapt up and Googled Captain Wentworth’s smoldering letter to read aloud from my phone, reveling in the language. Later that morning, a procrastinatory Twitter check rewarded me with this JSTOR Daily article on Jane Austen’s Subtly Subversive Language, which is not only a crisply insightful piece in its own right but is absolutely rife with links to other JSTOR articles about Jane Austen, in case you are looking for a rabbithole to drop into.

Just because it’s Christmas:


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