Reading Roundup: November 2019

I read the first two-thirds of Inland in fits and starts, which is how I usually read: sitting on the bus, standing outside of my dance studio before it opens, occasionally over lunch if I take one away from my desk. I read the final third in one thirsty gulp like one of the principal characters drinking from a canteen in the desert. I loved the writing all the way through, but everything that made it a slower read in the beginning (Nora’s lonely, thirsty life; keeping up with Lurie’s frenetic pace through the years and across the states) seemed to canter to a finish. Like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, this is densely detailed and highly intelligent historical fiction: there’s so much packed into the one single day of Nora’s life and one whole lifetime of Lurie that I’m not even sure what to call attention to. I guess it’s this: in my view, Nora remains a smart, sympathetic character to the end, but I value the delicate way her characterization threaded the needle between admiring her strength and nobility and revealing how easily Nora can (and does) do stupid and cruel things–in part because of the extremity of eking out life in the parched desert, but also because that’s just what it is to be human. Lurie always seemed slightly beyond human to me, but in the end his character is defined by love for his mount, a camel improbably brought to the US territories for military use (Wikipedia). Finishing the story of this richly imagined bond while in bed, with one arm around a cat who had tucked her wet nose into the crook of my elbow, I despaired of ever writing a narrative of such beauty to honor my little animal companions.

The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin. I’m not quite sure how, but I never read The Awakening in school and thus had no idea it was set in and around New Orleans. I acquired this copy from a friend who was thinning their bookshelves, and when they hesitated over this book I offered to give it a loving home. I did love it–Chopin is a wonderful writer of place, and I could vividly imagine the cabins at Grand Isle and the streets of the French Quarter. Edna’s furtive seaside courtship with Robert got me all stirred up (remembering a similarly secret romance I carried on at a resort in Cozumel), but of course the affair is not the point–Edna is a wealthy white woman in the 1890s trying to figure out how to person outside of her marriage and family. She stops feeling beholden to social convention and does what she wants, which is mainly to paint and live alone and throw one fabulous goodbye party for her old life with her husband’s money. There’s a glamor as well as a sadness to the story, bearing in mind that Edna has certain freedoms due to her status.
The “other stories” are mostly excerpts from novels and short fiction that feature some of the same characters and themes; these lack some of the elegance and melancholy of The Awakening, partly due to the phonetic rendering of the Louisianan dialect, but I appreciated the curated selection.

Sock by Kim Adrian. I was so delighted to see this small, adorable book front and center on the shelves of a material history display at my university’s library. I recognized the name of the author from my food writing days, when we would comment on one another’s blogs. It’s a fun read–sock history, a good sampling of fetish theories, and a smattering of sock art and literary references–and written with real warmth and interest. This is a study that takes its subject seriously but also takes pleasure in the exercise, which I appreciate.
If all the books in the Object Lessons series are so enjoyable–Tree and Bread and so on–I’ll definitely pick up others.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I checked this book out of the library after reading this affectionate feature on the author’s work. The library copy was bound in a sensible cover of plain, sturdy green, and shelved on the third floor among stacks upon stacks of similar bound books. Reading a marvelously cozy fantasy in such a binding gave me powerful nostalgia: I remembered checking out every P.L. Travers book my grade school library owned and reading them while lounging on an old toybox that my mom had re-upholstered into a kind of window seat. This book is a delight and precisely the right combination of practical and awe-inspiring magic for a delicious cold-weather read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I bought this book at the PA Conference for Women hoping to get it signed by the author, but unfortunately I had a volunteer shift during her book signing. I did watch the livestream of the talk she gave, though, and felt moved and inspired by the way she described her career as a writer: not an arc or a ladder but a series of choices that she has to keep choosing, again and again.
I read this book on a bus trip, which was both awesome and awful, because a great deal of the rising action takes place on an uncomfortable car trip to a prison in upstate Mississippi and there is a LOT of vomiting involved. The book is a masterclass in so many difficult-to-balance narratives: different chapters are narrated by different characters, and their voices are distinct because of the way they think and what they want. No need to rely on gimmicky syntax or dialect: there is a certain amount of south Mississippi dialect, but it feels natural and expressive rather than precious. Very little happens on the road trip, but the characters’ minds wheel back and forth in time, and you learn about their fears and desires and relationships without losing your place in the present. There are ghosts and voodoo practices too, but these elements are introduced very slowly so that you have a long time to get acquainted in the world of Mississippi, and when the spirits appear they seem viscerally real and of a piece with that world. All this admiration of craft, though, did not stop me from crying my eyes out for the last few chapters. Fortunately I had a seat to myself on the bus.

I am still really enjoying creative writing class, and my second fall term course has stellar readings. “Reeling for the Empire” was even greater than I remembered.  (Here’s a .pdf.) We read interspecies mpreg by Octavia Butler (“Bloodchild”). We read “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” by Natalie Diaz, a surreal story that haunts me, and Monique Verdin’s “Ebb and Flow” from the edited collection Unfathomable City, which devastated me with its matter-of-fact but emotionally resonant history of the indigenous Houma people of Louisiana and where climate change might leave them. Indigenous history is a deeply embarrassing lacuna in my knowledge of the region, which I have resolved to rectify.

Currently Reading

I borrowed The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames from the library because it had gotten warm blurbs from three authors I adore. (Yes, yes, I know, blurbs are useless, however.) Now I’m stranded with it on the return trip home, so I hope it shifts gears soon. As I have noted, any book set in a college is guaranteed to bore me unless it does something really wild, like introduce supernatural murder (Bunny) or a devastating epidemic (The Dreamers).

I have also started watching the new His Dark Materials series with my neighbor and re-reading The Golden Compass as we go. I came to this trilogy differently than some of my peers: I read it as an adult, after having already seen the much-criticized movie (I liked the fantasy of it, and had no other point of reference). It made an enormous impression on me–in fact, I was reading book 2 when I decided unilaterally to end my toxic relationship of that time, which led domino-style to me ending my toxic relationship with grad school. Re-reading it ten years on, I am both enjoying the vividly imagined world and wincing at some details (the dog daemons of servants! the rare same-sex daemon!). This last ten years has been a ride for us all, friends. It’s startling to realize the ways I am the same reader I was in 2009/2010 and also not at all the same.

Elsewhere on the Internet

At Vulture, Alexander Chee explores the questions we should ask ourselves when writing from the perspective of characters who don’t share our communities or cultural touchpoints. It’s about being thoughtful and intentional about the stories we tell, but at the end there is also this advice:

So when I meet with those beginner students to discuss their first stories, I ask them to think of stories only they can write. Stories they know but have never read anywhere. Stories they always tell but never write down.

I find myself thinking of this as I pry stories out of my drafts folder and post them online: what are the stories I tell over and over, like the failure landscape, the tea break, the Pandora playlist? But if these are the stories I tell, what am I?

At LitHub, translator Sara Wheeler pays homage to the indefatigable 19th-century woman who translated much of Tolstoy’s work into English. I will never not be fascinated by comparisons between two different translations: in this case, the work of Constance Garnett–which was read and celebrated by modernist writers at the turn of the 20th century–and the more recent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Truthfully, I didn’t get very far into the Garnett translation at first and immediately called for recommendations on Facebook, which is how I acquired the more recent translation. I devoured it, swept up by a story which I felt had been somewhat occluded by the outdated prose used by Garnett. But then I went back and read the Garnett translation some years later, and got swept up again. I’ll never do the side-by-side myself, so it interests me to get the perspective from someone with deep knowledge of translation.

Emily Rab0teau review of two recent books is interweaved with a deep reflective dive into the intersection of climate change and racism. I am grateful to these insights, which (combined with A People’s Future of the United States, incidentally edited by Raboteau’s husband) inspired me to stay up way too late last week writing spec fic about New Orleans in the year 2050.

I still haven’t seen the new season of The Crown but I feel pretty caught up:

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