Reading Roundup: February 2020

After We All Died by Alison Cobb. One of my creative writing classes assigned part of this collection of poetry and poetic prose, and the instructor recommended I read the rest after she read my speculative fiction short story (alluded to last month). This poetry is not about the future per se, but it is about death and shit and capitalism and other abject matters, and it is sharp and painfully smart on these topics. I read it in the manner prescribed by my other creative writing class and wrote down the lines and sentences that seemed to glow on the page. Here are a few sampled from various parts of the text:

Humans are slow release fertilizers too–how one soaks up poisons and leaks them back to the world. . . How one is already dead–breathing, but foreordained to suck up the deadly sugar juice of capital. It’s the only food left.

“The sororal death,” writes [Anne] Boyer, “is not women dying for each other [as men do], but women dying of being women.”

The word shelter comes from shield, a flat piece of wood or metal to protect the body in war, and from a much older root meaning cut, to break apart.
The truth is that shelter always eventually fails–the tiles crack, a fire starts, the ants thread their nests through the walls.

The house must be fragile. That’s what makes it infinite–opened to the gaps and the cracks and all that flows through them. . . .  Be clear, like a web, almost all hole. Be a way that is not at war.

Wake, Siren by Nina McLaughlin. The thing is, if you do a mythology retelling I’m probably going to read it. It’s comfort reading: I know how the stories go, and there’s a kind of familiar strangeness in seeing how they are retold. This one retells the women’s stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as short first-person narratives–the sort that I 100% would have read in the Dramatic Interpretation division of my high school forensics tournament. There are a lot of them, and they range widely in tone. Some are very funny! (A bro-y Apollo yells “My shaft is sure in flight!” as he chases down Daphne, which is apparently a direct quote from Ovid.) Some employ textual or stylistic gimmicks. Some do the police in different voices to a cringey degree, so I almost quit the book early on. But I’m glad I persisted, because some of the narratives are quite beautiful and thoughtful; I loved Tiresias meditating on male and female pleasure, for example. Just… the women’s stories of Ovid are all about unequal power dynamics. Most of them are running for their lives, and the author doesn’t want you to handwave away the implications of that–she wants you to see the painful thrust, the wriggling cut-out tongue. So you gotta go in prepared for that.

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. This book juxtaposes the story of two mixed-race women: a widowed grandmother who had been born enslaved but by the 1920s owned her land, and a single mother who finds herself living with her aging white grandmother for a period of time. Set in and around New Orleans, the narrative has such a close, intimate way of talking about food and neighborhoods and companionship that I wanted to just sink into it like a soft chair. But the author doesn’t want you to get too comfortable; this is no heartwarming story of racial harmony designed for white women’s book clubs (something the contemporary narrative explicitly calls out). Both women’s stories are peppered with moments of the unsettling (casual racism, microaggressions) and uncanny (visions, a creeping sense of dread). Even when things are going well for the narrators and their uneasy relationships to the white women they live alongside, you can’t quite shake the feeling that the other shoe is going to drop–rightfully so.

Creatures by Crissy Van Meter. A short, moody novel set on a fictional island off the coast of San Francisco. When I first began reading, two literary references loomed large in my mind: the opening passage of Moby Dick when Ishmael talks about heading out to sea during the “damp, drizzly November of my soul,” and a book I loved as a kid, Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, which similarly features an offbeat coastal childhood with a well-meaning but unreliable father. But this book is very much its own creature; the story unspools in a decidedly nonlinear structure (Jane Alison would be pleased) and whenever I expected it to go one way, it would go another.
I borrowed this book from the library but I will likely purchase my own copy, as it contains the most fully-realized and emotionally nuanced portrait of nonmonogamy that I can ever recall seeing in fiction.

Currently Reading

Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James. I’m not very far into this tome, but I can see why people compared it to Game of Thrones as soon as a bunch of people got stabbed and one lost an eye just a few pages in. I’m not really in the right headspace for this level of violence–remember how it took me years to read Who Fears Death?–but I have a limited library loan of this bestseller, so I press on and find that I enjoy it most when I let my mind move lightly over the prose, and allow the astonishing imagery and language to glow. (I wrote more about that yesterday.)

And this is a stretch for “currently reading” but I don’t want it to get buried under all the links below: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel’s third book in the Wolf Hall series, is finally going to be released this year and TLS has an excerpt.

Elsewhere on the Internet

So, publishing has a diversity problem. I know it, you know it, and the big dust-ups this month were just exhausting to witness, but here is a little record-keeping so I don’t forget this happened until the next time we watch history repeat itself.

In the case of American Dirt, just to clarify, the source of the controversy is not that a non-Mexican woman wrote a story about Mexico, or even that she wrote a somewhat superficial thriller about crossing the border from Mexico. She’s allowed. The controversy is that the publishing industry backed this debut novel with literally millions of dollars of advances and publicity and partnerships and barbed-wire-bedecked floral centerpieces–the kind of money that most immigrant authors who actually have this story to tell will never see. That’s a publishing industry problem, but it’s also a cultural problem–that kind of money doesn’t appear without compelling evidence that an even bigger profit will appear. For a more in-depth take on this, I appreciated this thoughtful piece at The Cut by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

Of all the responses one might have to this kind of manufactured publishing disaster, “mock mercilessly” is a pretty solid choice. Hence: As a 28-year-old Latino, I’m shocked my new novel, Memoirs of a Middle-Aged White Lady, has been so poorly received.

Look, am I a middle-aged white woman? No. But did I interview dozens of middle-aged white women to learn about their struggles and experiences? Also no. What I did do, though, was watch three episodes of Desperate Housewives and drink an entire glass of wine, which I think most people would agree is more than enough research.

Speaking of manufactured disasters, an imprint of Barnes and Noble decided to re-release a bunch of classic literature with brightly colored covers depicting nonwhite characters. That is to say: each edition had multiple covers depicting the characters with different shades of skin as well as racialized accessories, so you could choose your edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring a black Dorothy with afropuffs or a Native Dorothy with facepaint and feather earrings, both with bright red sneakers tucked under one arm. Bear in mind that nothing about the text has been changed: if you could choose an edition of The Secret Garden with a Southeast Asian Mary on the cover, you still get the same old deeply Euro-supremacist text inside. Very gross. There was an outcry–The New Republic has a good overview–and Barnes and Nobles pulled the editions and released a pretty decent apology.

But it’s not quite enough: the question “how did this happen” still remains, and the answer is “because the industry is still very, very white.”

Anyway.

This kind of listicle is precisely my jam: 9 Books That Should Be Adapted as Video Games

Speaking of video games: I love a well-told gaming narrative. I don’t have a knack for it myself, but nine years later, I still think about LJ-friend whatifoundthere’s posts about playing Skyrim–particularly the ones about accidentally getting engaged to Farkas and then a rocky patch in their marriage. I also love replayable games that allow for a little roleplay, giving yourself rules or character traits to abide by. Skyrim and ESO have limited scope for this, as those games really want you to join every guild and play every questline, but Morrowind was great for it because joining certain factions would close off others. Once you join a House, that’s it for the other Houses; becoming a vampire makes you a pariah but opens up a whole new series of quests.

All this to say that I really appreciated this Fanbyte article about trying to live honorably in Red Dead Redemption; it sounds like the system sets you up to fail but the player is trying his best, which is all any of us can do. Also, his gaming narrative persuaded me to dig up and post my discovery of Fallout 4, which I posted to the Slack channel I used to use to stay in touch with a couple of friends who also love games.

Okay, one more gaming link: Kotaku, Almost Nobody Played A Bad Guy In Mass Effect. Yours truly, who lives in a cave and logged over 10,000 playthroughs of Mass Effect, roughly half of which were renegade, is an outlier and should not be counted.

This is beautiful storytelling but I also can’t stop thinking about the idea of having your life and identity shaped by a few sentences–even one-off, casual statements–that you can’t stop thinking about: Six Sentences by John Paul Brammer.

At Wired, a definition of “doomer” literature and a survey of books and movies that grapple with the idea that the world as we know it may end, and conclude with varying degrees of hope. Relatedly, this interview with Lauren Groff at Ploughshares rounds up some excellent writing on environmental themes and grapples with the combined feelings of urgency and futility I recognize. (Then, once on Ploughshares, I stumbled onto this lyrical reflection on death and climate change inspired by the book Annihilation.)

For a slightly different angle on cli fi or spec fic: at Tor, Charlie Jane Anders explains that, for her, writing about the future means writing about the past.

4 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: February 2020”

  1. In the weird Venn Diagram of Books I’m Currently Into and Mass Effect trivia: I’m currently reading The Fifth Season trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, who you previously read last year (the author of Mass Effect: Initiation.) THIS IS THE BEST THING I’VE READ IN A LONG TIME. The three books won the Hugo award for best novel three years in a row, which is apparently the first time ever. Didn’t think I’d be into it from the synopsis, but my god, it’s amazing. Kind of an amalgam of Ender’s Game, The Color Purple, and Game of Thrones, maybe, but that’s underselling it. It’s fantasy that leans towards scientific explanations, and intimate connections with a few characters instead of a sprawling cast, and the morality is shades of gray, and the surprises are genuinely shocking, and the world building is INCREDIBLE, and I love every single character in the book. Whew.

    1. I am excited to hear how much you’re enjoying it! I haven’t read it yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I have a couple of friends who loved the series, and I have been following NK Jemison on Twitter since I read the Mass Effect book–she had great cultural insight as you might expect!

  2. […] Last month I started Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James, and wrote about how its style required me to selfconsciously read unselfconsciously. Reading it was work for the first hundred pages or so, but then I didn’t want to put it down. I got accustomed to the rhythm of the story and able to follow threads that snaked in from earlier and later sections of the narrative. The early pages are also difficult for other reasons: for example, the narrator Tracker is more than a little misogynist, and that tendency doesn’t really get interrogated until quite late in the book. But it does get interrogated, and Tracker is a compelling protagonist–clever, cautious, closed-off, and dangerous–so I could not resist turning pages to see how he would twist himself out of tight spots and open to up to the right companions. This is a book that rewards revisiting, and before I even finished I was flipping back to the beginning to read those early passages with greater comprehension. But I can’t see myself sitting down for a proper reread; the story is packed with imaginative, ghastly violence, often recounted in a cinematic style as though the author is drafting the future screenplay at the same time. I won’t need to revisit those scenes to have them seared into my mind. […]

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