Reading Roundup: January 2020

First, a story.

In one of my fall creative writing classes, I volunteered to get my story workshopped early in the term. The only problem: I hadn’t written a story yet. I seesawed between topics and ideas for a week until finally–the day before it due–I found my story. Then I wrote like a woman possessed for three days (yes, I turned it in late.) I wrote on my commute. I wrote at lunch. I wrote when I got home from work. When I finished, I had a short piece of speculative fiction that articulated some of my fears and griefs about the rising sea level and what life might be like when the cities we love are destroyed. I’ve started sketching out a wider world for that story to live in; maybe some other stories will join it. We’ll see.

I mention this because I can’t honestly recap my experience reading Orange World by Karen Russell without acknowledging that I was devastated by “The Gondoliers,” her story about life in a beloved southern city after the sea level rises and destroys the version of society we currently know. As in my story, there’s a conversation between a young person who has adapted to the new normal and an older person racked with guilt about the too-little-too-late measures that failed to slow the rising sea.

Now, let’s be realistic. This isn’t a wild coincidence. The sea level is going to rise, and many of us are terrified about it, and we are telling stories to try to see our way through it. And other than the apocalyptic vision and the old world/new world dynamic, there isn’t much similar about my story and “The Gondoliers”: Karen Russell is Karen Russell, so her vision of the future is a chaotic swamp of sensory detail and unseelie elements, and I loved spending time in her creepy world. And lord knows there will be hundreds more stories about the rising seas as time goes on. But I still felt a pang of injustice–excuse me, no fair, that was my story–and I wanted to be really honest about that petty feeling, as I suspect it’s a relatable one for other writer-friends when first testing the waters in fiction.

Otherwise, Orange World is a collection of unrelated but equally unsettling stories, and I did enjoy thrashing about in it (as one might thrash in a pool of chilling, brackish water). My favorites were “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound”–a steely-eyed contemplation of animal companionship that made me sob on an airplane–and “The Tornado Auction,” a whimsical, colloquial, and brutally critical story envisioning a livestock market for devastating storm systems.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is also a collection of stories, though they are linked together more intentionally by place and chronology. The structure is like a mirror version of There, There by Tommy Orange: rather than spinning toward a cataclysmic event, Disappearing Earth‘s crisis happens in the first chapter and the repercussions unspool over the course of a calendar year from various characters’ perspectives. Each character is preoccupied with their own passions and griefs, but the disappearance of two local girls vibrates in the background of their thoughts and shapes how they feel about their lives in the Kamchatka Peninsula: what it means to be a woman or not, a native or not, a citydweller or not, and how it feels to miss someone or to be missed. The writing is stunning, and while I began with almost zero familiarity with the region or its culture, I always felt I knew where I was in this author’s capable narrative.

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Allison is a lovely, lyrical look at some of the different structures a story can have besides the ubiquitous arc of rising and falling action. It is ostensibly a book about craft, a book in which a writer writes about writing. This can make for laborious reading, but this book is anything but; I had sailed through more than half of the ebook before I thought to check my progress, and was shocked at how little time it took me to swim through the rest. I did experience this book like swimming: although it is made up of many little sections (meanders, spirals, radials or explosions, networks and cells, fractals) which are made up of many more little sections in which the author both summarizes and savors the structural artistry of select stories and novels, her own structure is as smooth and pleasurable to move through as water. I did acquire the book hoping for some creative inspiration for my next storytelling endeavors, and I am not sure I found that–except, perhaps, in permission to explore many different kinds of telling beyond exposition > climax > resolution, and to give a story the structure it demands rather than mapping it onto an acceptable or clever format. I wrote down some other thoughts it stirred up here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It may be beloved by bookish girls, but I had never read this book (except a sort of graphic novelization of the stories in a series of illustrated classics I had as a child). But I loved, loved, loved the recent movie, which I saw with a few of my favorite movie-going friends who cackled gleefully whenever Laurie draped his baggy self on a divan or Amy took something too seriously. It was such a joyful telling, perhaps more so because it allowed the bleak bits to get bleaker in the face of Jo’s brightly colored remembrances, but it’s clear that the director found something to love in each of those characters even when they were at their worst.
I didn’t have terribly high hopes for the book, which as it turns out is neither as good as fans promised nor as bad as critics warned, but I did enjoy it. I’ve read my share of sentimental literature since my snobby grad school days, so I didn’t mind the “moral pap for the young” bits, and was just happy to stay in that world a little longer and reflect on the art of screenplay adaptation. The script was very faithful to the book–almost verbatim with a few notable exceptions–but sharpened to a finer point.

I found Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on a clearance table–likely to make room for a newer edition featuring an introduction by goth queen Carmen Maria Machado–and I made myself late for lunch with a friend in order to buy it. Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula but deploys some of the same vampire mythology, and my edition neatly lays all that out in a scholarly introduction followed by ample appendices with related vampire stories and poems. These materials are necessary to fill out the slim book, as Carmilla is a rather short story, but made a perfect juicy read over a quiet couple of days as I recovered from a sinus infection.
It was particularly striking to read this famously queer gothic tale in tandem with Little Women, which was published only a few years before it. Carmilla‘s narrator Laura lives in a nearly all-female household but longs for a new friend; she strikes up a nearly instantaneous intimacy with mysterious Carmilla, who both unsettles and fascinates her. As an outsider, Carmilla brings elegance and unpredictability to Laura’s lonely maidenhood; she makes Laura uncomfortable at times with her romantic expressions of affection but also flatters her and charms her. You could very easily insert Laurie in place of Carmilla in those sentences! As much as the little women adore “managing” Laurie and involving him in their games, his presence always threatens the close homosocial bonds of the March household. Early on, Jo worries that Laurie will marry pretty Meg; later, she suspects quiet Beth of loving him and hopes to encourage him to love her in return, while simultaneously recognizing his romantic interest in herself and removing herself to New York. Is Laurie a lesbian vampire? Perhaps not–but, counterpoint, why else cast Timothee Chalamet in that role?
(Am I being silly? Yes. These comments are for my fellows from the grad school trenches who are so very weary of the March saga.)

I have a lengthy list of desired books with links to their catalog pages in my university’s library system, but for the last two weeks of January every single one was checked out. Great for the books! Less great for me. So I downloaded “Parsnips in Love,” a short story by Porochista Khakpour. It is a beautifully imagined and beautifully written story, by turns funny, shocking, and melancholy.

This month I finally finished the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I think my neighbor summarized well as “diminishing returns”–it’s weird, wild journey from the steampunk fantasy of The Golden Compass to Fish Out of Water, Parallel Universes Edition in The Subtle Knife and, finally, to the part where (I must remind you) some adults are trying to kill God and some children are reenacting the fall from Eden. On this reread, The Amber Spyglass reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s science fiction–the weird ones where he imagines that outer space is warm (bc the sun) and Mars is home to alien life forms which don’t look human but still make and eat cheese. But, you know, I didn’t have to keep reading about aliens with wheels and interdimensional bombs and apocalyptic interdimensional battles, and I chose to. I wanted to! I can’t imagine how they will televise the final acts of this trilogy, if the series gets that far.

Finally, I suppose I should note that I started a book called Principles of Atmospheric Science for my online course this term; it is part of a series of courses about climate change. It’s a slim book, wildly expensive if you buy it new (as a former academic publishing professional, I understand this, but I don’t like it and I found it used for cheap), but pretty accessible even for someone who hasn’t taken a science class since AP Chemistry in high school.

Elsewhere on the Internet

This is adorable: A Quirky Collection of Cat Whiskers Diligently Cataloged in a Handbound Book from the 1940s
Very clever how they are threaded through the page rather than glued or taped. When I was small, I used to save my cats’ shed whiskers in a cameo music box, threaded through glass beads to hold them together. I don’t keep the ones I find these days, but the magical-thinking lobe of my brain always murmurs a protest when I throw them away–what if I need them for a spell, maybe?

I meant to include this video game-adjacent tweet in December’s roundup, but I’m still unduly pleased with myself:

Speaking of video games: I never got into The Witcher series, although I enjoyed watching a friend run around in the stunning forests of Wild Hunt. I nabbed Witcher 2 when it was offered for free on my older console, but the lascivious cutscenes were so eye-rollingly sophomoric that I stopped playing. That said, The Witcher TV series was the perfect entertainment during the week I had a sinus infection and spent all my evenings spaced out and blanketed. It is the tender story of a large adult son who becomes a dad, and also a great deal of other political and magical drama that is never fully explained and which doesn’t truly add up. The Vulture gets it: How Can The Witcher Be So Fun and So Incoherent? (The URL is “why The Witcher slaps,” which I think is a far better title. It just does. No follow-up question!)

I’m very excited that the wonderfully imaginative Africanfuturism series, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, is being adapted for Hulu! I am also very excited that Station Eleven is being adapted for HBO!

It is absolutely fine to rip your books in half, and here is your periodic reminder that unless they are made of durable material like vellum (not pulp paper) and specially cared for, books decay! They yellow, they molder, the glue unsticks, the ink fades–sooner than you think, too. Cut them up! Dogear the pages! Take them in the tub! You can’t do worse to your books than time will.

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