Reading Roundup: September 2019

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. The short stories in this book are fascinated with how technology affects the human condition–but technology is very broadly defined, from sci-fi innovations (such as a device that records your memories as video) to the ancient technology of writing. I was delighted with the opening story, which–like my favorites in the author’s previous collection–is set in a richly imagined past rather than a possible future; the spareness of the author’s prose lends such settings a fairytale-like feel. The same style in more futuristic settings can seem clinical–for example, the title story comes across this way, but when the detached narrator burst into a stunningly poetic explication of its themes, I knew I had to keep reading. These stories have stayed with me, especially the ones about time travel and memory.

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. An elegant, readable novel following a brilliant mathematician whose quest to solve a difficult math problem as well as her own mysterious family history lead her to postwar Germany. The author is a mathematician herself, and she draws from real-world problems to inspire and mystify her characters. If that sounds intimidating, know that the reader is spared the numbers and equations–and the problems themselves form a kind of poetry which complements the narrator’s spare prose and the interspersed fairy tales and family lore.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister. I picked this up from the bestseller section of my library with some trepidation: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to another nonfiction book (I read two last month! surely that’s my quota for the year!) and I certainly had hesitations of reliving any of the last four years. To my surprise, it was not only riveting but somewhat therapeutic reading. I was at the Women’s March in DC in 2017; I’ve marched many a time since then; I’ve seen and read about so many subsequent political outrages that it has all become a blur, and I really appreciated seeing the events contextualized in a narrative. I also learned more about activist women I was aware of but not well-acquainted with–Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters–and I am grateful to learn about their political legacies.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry. It took me a little time to get oriented in this story–since I enjoyed the author’s book about 19th century Essex, I did come in expecting a period novel and was surprised when I realized that it takes place in the twentieth century. But it is a splendidly spooky book with mysterious secrets and supernatural presences amid descriptions of Prague libraries and Czech glass factories. It is admittedly bleak; the characters who feel themselves pursued by the titular spirit are really haunted by evils and injustices of the past–their own and others. World War II plays a major role. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Melmoth and The Ten Muse, both recent, find themselves preoccupied with fascism and its aftermath.) My recollection of The Essex Serpent was more joyful, peppered as it was with the pleasures of scientific discovery, but in retrospect I suppose that was a fairly mournful novel too.

Currently Reading

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. I didn’t want to take a library book with me on a weekend trip to the mountains, so I brought this volume (which I’d claimed from a friend who moved last year). I read “The Lottery” out loud to my fellow travelers, then went back to read some of the new-to-me stories on my train ride home. “The Lottery” is unlike most of the stories I’ve read so far, which take place in apartment buildings in midcentury New York where lonely men and women try to eke out a comfortable life. But the mundane environments are haunted by mystery–disappearances, mistaken identities–and I think the rest of the collection will make a delightfully spooky read next month.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Speaking of Shirley Jackson, LitHub reposted A Close Reading of the Best Opening Paragraph of All Time which dives into what find so delightfully creepy and captivating about We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Obviously I’m delighted by the coverage of what may be Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare’s plays at the Free Library of Philadelphia, but I’m a bit stymied by the way the news has been received online–some folks are out here talking about the “discovery” of the “hidden” folio that has been somehow buried in a bumbling library. Let me assure you that the Free Library was perfectly aware that they possessed a First Folio, and it was by no means buried–First Folios are treasured and tend to attract a lot of scholarly visitors. Many people have looked at this very Folio! But if there is no provenance or historical record or ownership, there is no way to know it belonged to Milton. Indeed, the “discovery” here is a very meticulous comparative kind of scholarly theorizing, involving an intimate knowledge of Milton’s handwriting as well as his poetics, and that is a much cooler story.  This Guardian article is a pretty measured take, and then this Inquirer article interviews a few of the key local players.

I’m fond of the wry humor of the webcomic Wondermark, but this post is a departure from the author’s usual fare: frustrated by the movie poster design for Mortal Engines, which features a closeup of the main female character’s face instead of the element that makes the movie really unusual (it features immense traveling cities that move about on wheels), he does a survey of similarly minimalist movie posters that fail to convey crucial story elements.

Hustlers is deliciously good fun but I also appreciate how it offers non-male-gazey ways to see its subjects, as described in this Vox article on Jennifer Lopez’s body.

I was sad to hear that Shakesville had shuttered, although this painful recap of the blog’s recent history (written by a former contributer) suggests that it was time for a break. I can’t speak to this conflict or the community most affected by it, but I do want to acknowledge how valuable the blog and its work was to me in the past. I was a reader and regular commenter more than ten years ago, and at that time it felt to me like a warm community–it offered a platform for discourse that The Toast commentariat would later fulfill for me. Shakesville introduced me to the blogs of feminist writers like Sady Doyle and Kate Harding (and Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose, in turn, hosted a vibrant commentariat that overlaps with the communities of The Toast and Captain Awkward–an awesome trio of smart, well-moderated social spaces). And whatever one may say of Melissa McEwan as a person, she is an incredible writer who spoke powerfully to the experiences I have had as a woman, as a fat woman, and as an assault survivor, when I did not yet have words of my own to express them. I’ve linked to several such posts on my own blog: the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck when we sacrifice our own emotional health to keep the peace; how making and protecting boundaries is seen as weakness instead of strength, on how sitting with fear changes the way you engage with the world.

Earlier this month I was working on a submission for my creative writing class and found myself frustrated with the depiction of women in the assigned reading. My frustration worked its way into my submission: what is a non-male writer supposed to do with men? I asked. Should we write them the way they write us, all surface? Should we write them with the interiority they won’t give us? Should we write as though they don’t exist? According to LitHub, some women writers have answered this question by writing their male main characters with such generous empathy that they find a back way in for their own stories.

GET READY:

I have not played the untitled goose game and probably will not anytime soon (all I want to do right now is roam Tamriel picking flowers) but I am extremely enjoying all the primo goose content. Some faves: The Shatner Chatner’s I am the horrible goose that lives in the town (“Where is the boy for me to disrespect? I am his least friend. I see his games an I contempt them. I ruin his life! Glasses for him? No! Shoelaces for him? No!”), Fanbyte’s theologizing on the meaning of goose, and this majestic video:

4 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: September 2019”

  1. I *love* the untitled goose game / lizzo mashup; thank you for sharing that!

    Exhalation was maaaybe my favorite read of the year so far. In a very trashy way, the new Joe Hill book comes in at #2, and I’ve been wondering why I’ve been so drawn to short stories lately – Black Mirror’s really grabbed my attention too. Maybe because the newscycle is so demanding of attention? Or maybe even the most surreal imaginary dystopias are escapism now?

    1. I usually think of myself as a person who doesn’t like short stories, but I realized recently that this has never been true of sci-fi or fantasy–sometimes a short story is the perfect length to explore an idea! If you’re in the mood for surreal imaginary dystopias, you’re gonna love the book I just finished and will post about next month: A People’s Future of the United States, edited by my fave Victor LaValle. It is PACKED with speculative short fiction and there’s not a dud in the bunch. I wouldn’t call it escapism–some are a bit too real–but it has helped me process some of my anxiety about the present to see depictions of resistance in the near future.

      1. THANK YOU! That book looks 110% up my alley; I ordered immediately. I’ll admit: I’m curious to see how the Trump administration’s hammer to the psyche affects art over the next couple of decades. I’d like to imagine fewer antihero movies / shows; I don’t know, but I think a lot of us creative types are going to be processing anxiety for years to come in some interesting ways. Grasping for silver linings.

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