Reading Roundup: January 2019

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve enjoyed the author’s other books, and this one is no exception. The book mostly centers on Amy, a New York mom who grapples with feelings of uselessness as her ten-year-old son becomes more independent, her marriage seems perfunctory, and her former career as an attorney seems impossibly distant and unrewarding. The narrative dips into the lives of Amy’s friends, mostly mothers of other boys at her son’s private school, their parents, and even some surprising glimpses of the lives of Margaret Thatcher’s assistant and Rene Magritte’s wife. It is a sharply observed book, mostly humane and sympathetic even as it recognizes the privilege of certain characters and the ways many of their struggles are of their own making.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. I’ve been following Ng on Twitter because she tends to tweet beautiful and interesting things about art and books and animals. This fantasy novel reflects some of those fascinations, as well as obsessions you might call Victorian gothic. Much of the action, such as it is, takes place in an spooky castle in faeland, and it’s as still and claustrophobic as any genteel maiden’s life might be: running around the moors like Elizabeth Bennett is not an option for Catherine Helstone, as a mortal who is never completely safe in Arcadia. The experience of reading the book is like exploring a cramped antique store, so packed full of oddities you can’t really take it all in. For example, the novel told me plainly, more than once, that Arcadia was circumnavigated by wicker whales that contained oceans and swam through the earth the way regular whales swim through the sea. That imagery didn’t really sink in, though, until a faeland whale beached itself near the castle and our protagonists could look inside its mouth to see sunlight glinting through the wicker roof of its inner cavity and illuminating the improbable coastal region they found therein. This is not a complaint! If you’re in the mood for eldritch fantasy with a heaping dose of metaphysical poetry, this a book that rewards a slow read–as your eyes may frequently dart back to see if you really read what you thought you read.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. I’ve been hearing about this novel for years–it’s a popular book in discussions of food literature, since the main character Rachel is a food writer and drops in recipes throughout the story of her acrimonious divorce. I started and finished the book on a long train ride, possibly the only circumstances in which I could manage it. Though you can see the relationship between this self-deprecating narrator and the lighter, sweeter humor of When Harry Met Sally, using humor as a coping mechanism means that everyone around the narrator becomes a target for a joke too, which in turn means a number of jokes about ethnicity, sexuality, and mental illness that didn’t age well.
On the other hand, I’ve had two occasions this month to quote Heartburn on capers–“Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it”–which I find untrue but nonetheless funny.

Nothing Good Can Come Of This by Kristi Coulter. It’s unusual for me to seek out a memoir or collection of essays. Even more unusual for me to seek out non-drinking narratives; I don’t even participate in Drynuary. But something drew me to this book, which turned out to be a cathartic read for a month known for broken promises and dreariness. Her writing about drinking is not preachy or prescriptive–she only ever claims to be writing about her own addiction–but her anxieties and addictions are inextricably linked to the same worries that trouble us all, from capitalist exploitation to conspicuous consumerism to bad politics, and therefore extremely Relevant To My Interests. When the author confronts the insidiousness of drinking culture, she consciously confronts the capitalist and sexist burnout that make workers, especially women, want to dull their senses. When she delves into the history of her personal wounds and wants that laid the groundwork for both her alcoholism and recovery, I appreciated the author’s deft balance of self-criticism and self-care (particularly so soon after reading the blunt-force deprecation of Heartburn). As I prepare to attend an upcoming wedding, I am indebted to the author’s conceptualization of a wedding as a novel–the sprawling Russian kind that has too many characters and subplots. A lovely prose poem called “Permission” could be a prescription for recovering from any kind of grief, with a nod to the late Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”)

Elsewhere on the Internet

Do I link myself? Very well then, I link myself. Meet your new Centuries-Old Boyfriend.

I considered adding this link to my food roundup because I associate hygge so strongly with alimentary pleasures–perhaps due in part to regular visits to Bar Hygge in Philly–but as the author points out, hygge is more about social conditions than material comforts: You don’t want hygge, you want social democracy at Jacobin.

The Good Place has not been pulling any punches this season! It goes by so quick that I need to immerse myself in recaps and reflections, and appreciated this take from gamer site Unwinnable:

The Good Place scares the crap out of me on a regular basis because of stuff like this, but I do think it’s a useful illustration of what we mean when we say all systems reflect the biases and points of view of their creators.

Appreciated this simple but persuasive take at Vox on why some of today’s best TV shows (all shows that I watch and enjoy!) centers on ordinary people trying to be their best selves, rather than the white male antihero that dominated so much of prestige television in the last two decades.

https://twitter.com/smortperalta99/status/1078517551506829312

As a professional writer and editor who refers to proofreading as “proofing,” I absolutely love this Establishment listicle: ‘Great British Bake Off’ Or Feedback From My Editor? You Decide! Samples: “The layers are there…at least,” “Good idea but not executed as well as it could have been,” and “Crispy all the way through.”

I somehow missed this iron-clad criticism of lazy writing from a year ago: Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?  See also: hire sensitivity readers! Consider talking to knowledgeable people if your crucial plot points pivot on completely knowable processes!

I don’t know how I forgot to include these on the roundup last month, they are SO GOOD:

Speaking of modernism: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this entire chart, but the Mercedes de Acosta circle and H.D.-Bryher triangle appear to be spot on.

https://twitter.com/Southldntabby/status/1087760299166445573

Yes, yes, this month’s roundup is a Twitterfest. But I could not publish a reading roundup without saying a word about the social media upset that rippled out from Marie Kondo’s recommendation re: books. It kept going long after we established that Kondo never said the words “Ideally, keep less than 30 books” (a paraphrase added to an image by a clergyman who actually wanted to encourage his peers to declutter). It kept going after Kondo explained that she herself prefers to keep a limited number of books but what matters is what “sparks joy” for you. The word “joy” became a lightning rod for complainers who want to showboat about their taste in Serious Literature; meanwhile, the idiom “spark joy” is an imprecise translation of a Japanese phrase which (according to Wikipedia, come on, I am not fluent in Japanese and neither are most of you) actually means to “flutter” or”palpitate.”

I’ve not watched much or read any or Kondo’s Konmari-ing, so I’m surprised to feel so strongly on the subject. But I do feel strongly about books, so if you are interested in my thoughts on the matter:

  1. No one is coming for your books. Do what you want with your books! Personally, I’m in favor of culling your books, but I myself just moved about 12 boxes of books to my new home, so I can’t judge.
  2. But, seriously, consider culling your books. Books are not inherently magical objects! They are made of organic matter that decays and cannot be kept for your entire lifetime unless you take extremely good care of them, which you are probably not doing! If you’re not reading some of your moldering books in the meantime, someone else could be. Besides, when I culled the books I was required to read for my PhD and donated the books I chose not to carry forward into my future, it was one of the most joyful experiences of my adult life.
  3. Speaking of joy: as mentioned above, it’s just an idiom. No one is suggesting that you set Dostoyevsky on fire because he doesn’t make you happy.
  4. You know perfectly well that if the English translator had chosen another approximate idiom–for example, if you were asked to sense the vibe of your books or see whether they make your heart throb–the same haters would complain. It’s the source they don’t like, not the message.
  5. Going forward, I only want to see Kondo memes that poke fun at my own sacred cows.

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