Reading Roundup: October 2019

The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith. My free First Read of the previous month. This book opens unconventionally in a swamp, with our heroine a literal toad who eats bugs and sheds her skin. I buckled up for a wild ride at that point, but the story settles into a conventional enough historical romance after that: a woman who bucks convention, a man who lives by it, an ice queen rival, a quaint French village and a little medieval torture thrown in at the end. Perhaps because I was already buckled in, I ate up this story like its protagonists eat up the magical French pastries that predict who they’ll fall in love with. I also appreciated the conceit of magical powers being like cultivating and fermenting wine.

A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle (whose fantasy fiction I enjoy) and John Joseph Adams.  This collection is the sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative authors’ answer to A People’s History of the United States. What will out nation look like in the future? it asks. The answer is bleaker than I’d hoped, but these are sharp and incisive stories that give us heroes and rebels as well as dystopian states and violent demographic homogenization. There are stories by authors I’ve read or intended to read (Charlie Jane Anders, Lesley Nneka Arimah, N. K. Jemisin, Daniel José Older, for just a few examples) as well as some by new-to-me authors, but there is not one single story here that failed to move or shake me. It’s a lot to take in, cover to cover–maybe I’d recommend sampling these stories one or two at a time between reading other books. On the other hand, I didn’t want to stop reading.

Believe Me by Eddie Izzard. Surprise! Eddie Izzard wrote an autobiography. It sounds a lot like his standup! A little bit of it actually comes from his standup, and when I encountered these it felt like meeting an old friend.
I’m not a great lover of autobiography, so I admittedly read the sections on childhood and family with a very light touch. But I appreciated the opportunity to read about the performer’s gender and sexuality in his own words. Dressed to Kill was enormously important to me as a teen and college student: we all watched him stride around onstage in makeup and heels, joking that he is “an executive transvestite,” and his seemingly easy, fluid relationship with gender was aspirational. But in those days we didn’t know the word genderfluid. We had the word androgynous–a complimentary term for grunge girls with boyish bodies and boys who wore a bit of eyeliner. We had not heard of nonbinary, and transsexual mainly meant Dr. Frankenfurter, although Rocky Horror’s campy, sexualized transfeminity didn’t seem like the right word for what Eddie Izzard was doing, or for us either. He talks a little about that–having a deep, lasting sense of his own gender but not having a word for it; coming out thirty years ago as a transvestite, which is a word that we don’t really use anymore. Someone asked me if I would recommend the book, and I equivocated–but it certainly has given me a lot to reflect on. And I was thrilled to learn that Eddie Izzard’s first performance in America was in the parking lot of Bosco’s in Memphis, a place I’ve brunched on many a Sunday while very likely doing the occasional Eddie Izzard impersonation with my college pals.

I have been taking creative writing classes online, and I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t mention some of the short readings I’ve really enjoyed in the first fall term. We read part of Wendy Travino’s “Popular Culture and Cruel Work,” which explored some ideas about popular culture, relationships, and politics that also trouble me; here is an example. Although some of the links are broken, Hanif Abdurraqib posts many of his poems and essays online; I love the way he weaves his own experiences as an individual and a consumer into his very smart analysis of music and other cultural artifacts; a great example of this is his deeply respectful reflection on Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Ryan Eckes wrote a series of prose poems reflecting on public transit routes (or spurs) that were planned but never built in Philadelphia, but also on cities in general and what it means to be a part of one; here are two. The second fall term is just starting up, but next week we are reading Karen Russell’s “Reeling for Empire” and I cannot wait to read it again and talk about it.

Currently Reading

Inland by Téa Obreht. Was this selection inspired, in part, by the Barack Obama’s summer reading list? Maybe. But it’s a captivating read so far. I feel most at home in the chapters narrated by Nora, a woman trying to eke out a living on a parched claim in the Territory of Arizona; her voice is smart, writerly, and wry, even preoccupied as she is with water and waging a flame war in the local newspaper. The chapters narrated by Lurie include passages I have to read more than once; as he moves from town to town in the early American territories, his attention jumps between potential predators and prey, and between the living and dead as well. Between Lurie’s ghosts and the eerieness of the great unsettled wilderness, it’s a spooky book–but wonderfully rich with concrete detail.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I love a good quadrant, and this is a very good quadrant: The Literary Stunt Index.

I will miss Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, although I am happy it got a chance to play out its arc and end on its own terms. It helps to read these affectionate, thoughtful essays at Public Books on what made this very unusual show work.

My favorite parts of the new Jenny Slate comedy special were all about the nanas, and this New Yorker article about the clothing and style moments in the show helped me understand why.

I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which has absolutely no chill, and I loved this thread of someone discovering it for the first time:

I am always a little shy about talking about mental health, but I posted to my food blog about an interaction I had with a therapy over a cup of tea which led me to a realization about one of my negative thought patterns, so that’s there if you want to read it.

3 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: October 2019”

  1. […] If you love a sci-fi or speculative short story with a big “what if” question, Ted Chiang wrote Exhalation for you, and editors Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams collected writing from some of today’s best writers in the genre to help you imagine A People’s Future of the United States. […]

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