Reading Roundup: August 2019

Except for the first weekend in August, when I needed a gently used paperback to take to the beach, I pulled all of this month’s reading from the stacks in my university’s library. I’ve started a couple of books on my phone–The Poppy War, and Tor’s free ebook of the month, The Necessary Beggar–but I’ve really been enjoying my library-sponsored respite from screens, so I don’t think I’ll finish those by the end of the month.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved Americanah by the same author, and at first I missed the force and distinctiveness of the later novel’s narrators. The narrator of Hibiscus is elusive in the beginning; although the novel opens with a violent, evocative image–narrator Kambili’s father throws a religious book at her brother and shatters their mother’s most prized possession–this moment seems to unfold in slow motion, with Kambili’s attention diverted by the tropical surroundings of their home and the distance of memory. Before long, I realized that shy and self-effacing Kambili has developed her silence and powers of observation to adapt to the terrifying abuse in her household. This novel is the story of how she and her brother start to find their way out, but even as she finds her voice, Kambili simmers with unspoken emotion.

The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark. Since I often speak to alumni who work in fields adjacent to water science and distribution, I’ve become glaringly aware of how little I know about what happened in Flint. Most of what I had heard is that the problem stemmed from Flint’s water source and that there is a grievous inequity between the utilities that the people of Flint could access and what whiter, wealthier neighborhoods can access. The latter is true, but this book does not reduce accountability for Flint’s water crisis to a single organization or policy action. There were many steps along the way when a key decisionmaker handwaved a necessary environmental protection requirement, dismissed citizen complaints, or withheld environmental and medical information from residents–but even beyond the chain of negligence, Flint’s water system exists within historical framework of housing inequity and failing infrastructure that beleaguers many US cities. I learned that any city I’ve ever lived in can (and probably has, at some point) become ground zero for a public health crisis related to water–and that the pattern of environmental injustice and urban decay in Flint (or anywhere similar) is a vivid illustration of the lasting effects of institutional racism.

The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. I’m not big on true crime, but I was lured in by the promise of learning about how women actually lived in Victoria’s reign. In that respect, this book does not disappoint! From what little I knew about Jack the Ripper’s victims, I did indeed assume they were all prostitutes–as did the police force who investigated the murders. But this detailed history shows that there were a number of reasons a woman might be on the streets at night–most often because she couldn’t afford a bed–and a number of things an impoverished woman might do for a meager living apart from the sex trade. The book dives into all the detail that is known about the five women: where they were born, who they married (all but one had been married), how many children they bore (three were mothers), how much education they’d had (three could read), and what circumstances led them to a precarious existence where they might be targeted by a killer and not missed until the following morning. The book is at its best when sketching out the landscape in which these women moved–the rise of factories and fall of certain skilled trades, the dangers of the workhouse, the attractions of public spaces like coffee houses and pubs. I was less moved by the attempts to color in these outlines with speculation about what the women thought and felt about their circumstances; for example, while the author takes what I consider a sensible view toward sex work (i.e. that it is not inherently immoral, but that our culture is grossly titillated by the idea of murdering prostitutes), she’s considerably less sympathetic toward the alcoholism that seemed to afflict all five women.

Regardless, period film and fiction would benefit greatly from the historical research here, and the need for this kind of historical reclamation is clear. The very day I finished reading this book, I started watching the new What We Do in the Shadows TV series; in one episode, the vampire Laszlo introduces us to his garden of topiary vulva sculptures and leers at the one he says belonged to Polly Nichols. Polly (or Mary Ann) Nichols was the first of the canonical five victims of Jack the Ripper: she was a married mother of five, although she left her husband and lived out her days sleeping in dosshouses, workhouses, and on the street. (The husband immediately moved in and had a baby with their next-door neighbor upon Polly’s departure, so fill in the blanks.) After that, Polly scraped together a living begging, doing housework, and pawning pieces of her charwoman uniform. There’s no evidence that she sold sex, and her occasional dosshouse bedmate (another woman in her forties, Ellen) was a bit shocked at the suggestion at the coroner’s trial.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a big idea book that has muddy bits in its execution, and it took me a few chapters to get oriented to the society of the novel’s tidally locked planet January, but ultimately the world of this novel was compelling enough that I took to my bed early for two nights in order to finish it. The parallels to our own society are obvious but not ham-handed: the colonists in January live on land that isn’t theirs, and struggle to eke out an existence in a stratified society on a planet rushing toward environmental calamity, but the alienness of January and its major cities are otherworldly enough to allow for surprise and wonder. It’s also a nice narrative for positive representations of nontraditional relationships: there’s no romance, per se, but there are intense partnerships built out of mutual protection and comforting physical touch, and a few bonds built out of respectful rivalry or conflict.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob. As good as everyone says. I am not an experienced reader of graphic novels, so I can’t attest that I am reading this book in the way it is meant to be read. I inhaled its pages of illustrated conversations: some funny, some painful, some reflective. The book opens and closes with the difficulty of explaining today’s news to her small biracial son, who can’t avoid exposure to our racist president’s televised rants. Heartbreakingly, Z is trying to piece together who the good guys are when some of his white family members voted red and his brown family members are anxious and scared. Talking to a curious little boy make our absurd reality so painfully clear. But my favorite parts of this book are its tenderest moments, when the author reflects on falling in love with her husband, making memories with her dying father, and learning to empathize with an abhorrently bigoted employer.

Elsewhere on the Internet

If The Five piqued your interest, you may like this Nursing Clio interview with the author. I am sorry but not surprised to know that she is being trolled by Ripperologists.

Devastating to lose both Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall in the same month. Toni Morrison’s contribution to literary culture cannot be overstated. Paule Marshall may not be as well known, but her novel Brown Girl, Brownstones has remained on my shelf despite three moves and numerous book cullings since I first read it. I recall it being melancholy and exquisitely written. I appreciated these glimpses of both literary icons from the perspective of another incredible black woman writer, Edwidge Danticat.

Loved this post about Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong at the Millions. One of my first scholarly papers (and, eventually, publications) was a close look at the fashion in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Not all novels are so deliciously and dangerously attentive to the symbolism of clothing, though, and I often feel confused or put off by descriptions of what people wear. I usually assume that is because I don’t know enough about fashion to understand how it should look or what it should mean, but now I feel reassured that many celebrated authors just aren’t that great at clothes.

Congrats to Jeannette Ng on her Campbell Award–and for her eviscerating acceptance speech which seems to have brought about a name change for the award. If you’re curious about what she calls her “weird little story,” I read it and liked it.

This satire has no right to be so real!! As I texted the friend who sent me this link: Rude to come in hot with the awkward sex act.
Critically Acclaimed Horror Film of the 2010s or Your Ph.D. Program?

Aaaah okay I mostly agree with this but it turns out I have really strong feelings about “cheers” (evil alignment! no question!) and believe “warmly” and “warm regards” give off seriously chaotic energy.

Since my neighbor and I have recently started saying “You KICK Miette??” when feeling attacked by one another or by the world, I am very pleased to see that poet Patricia Lockwood’s cat Miette got a profile in The Cut.

The Miette tweet itself, like a perfect short play in 20 seconds:


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