Reading Roundup: May 2020

I started the month still absorbed by my comfort read, War and Peace, and to be fair I am still reading it. I’m just past the part of the story from which Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet is adapted, now in a war-centric section where there is a great deal of cattiness about historical figures. I really love the way Tolstoy writes about Napoleon: it’s very physical, lingering on the way the self-crowned emperor wears his clothes and cologne and his way of embodying kingliness, which helps sell the way that royal-born leaders and soldiers of other countries accept his rule. But Tolstoy is above all a writer of the life of the mind, and the inner life he imagines for Napoleon feels very plausible and revealing. Mad about all the time my graduate program spent on psychoanalysis when we could have just been reading Tolstoy.

Nonetheless, this section of the book is a little less page-turning than the secret marriage drama, and I ordered myself a bouquet of birthday books from my local bookstore, so I did finally get back into a pleasant reading habit–kicked off by Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, which was a gift from my gentleman. Longer post forthcoming about this slim but devastating book, which is oddly resonant in these times of potentially lethal misinformation.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is set in Philadelphia, mostly in the northeast neighborhoods where the opioid epidemic is most painfully apparent. It is narrated by a policewoman whose sister is missing, and it begins in a sort of noir vein that made me want to reread something by Tana French. French’s detectives are superheroes, as are many in the genre: they are fast thinkers, canny conversationalists, and sharp puzzle-solvers. Moore’s beat cop narrator is smart, but not superhuman: she is often confused, surprised, wrong-footed. I thought this made for a less arresting read until the book shifted about midway through, digging deeper into the relationships and emotional trauma at the core of its conflict. At the moment this thriller became a family drama, it became unputdownable to me, and I would gladly recommend the read.

Weather by Jenny Offill. This book easily became one of my top reads this year, and the year is not even half over. It’s a short book that in some ways resembles a poetry collection more than a novel: sections are made up of snapshots from the narrator’s perspective as she goes about her days. This lends itself to reflections and observations on everything from burned out academics to pet ownership to relationships over 40 to drug addiction to new parenthood to failing to live up to your own potential.

That said, this book has been held up as an example of “doomer literature” or literary fiction that is preoccupied with climate change, and that preoccupation buzzes in the background amidst all the business of Lizzie’s life. Now that I think of it, with all its short passages and flickering impressions, this book fairly buzzes with nervous energy that would probably make it an anxious read if not for the elegance and steadiness of the prose. But yes, in between worrying about her brother’s recovery from substance abuse and how the mothers at her son’s school perceive her and the weirdness of patron interactions at the library, Lizzie worries about whether it’s possible to prepare her family for the changing world or if you have to just live life as normal as the world ends. I would say that the results are inconclusive! It’s interesting to read this book at the same time as War and Peace, which is a book that emphasizes the futility of human effort in the vast inexorable march of history, yet lingers over the details of his character’s pain and happiness. In both books, there’s a sort of optimism in the impending doom, as though because nothing we do matters then everything we do is important.

I’ve downloaded a stack of ebooks–mostly plague- and pandemic-themed, as it happens–but haven’t much felt like reading from a screen. Still, with a week left of the month I figured I could squeeze in a little book candy in the form of Mass Effect Annihilation: by Catherynne M. Valente. Pandemic themed? Check. Comfortingly familiar universe (from the Mass Effect video game series)? Check.  Quick and breezy pacing? Check. I haven’t always warmed up to this author’s style, but I really admired the way she fleshed out characters and voices for some of the trilogy’s least-explored aliens (hanar, drell, batarians, elcor). And yes, like my fellow viewers in the Twitch chat for a player who was streaming the final battle of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I too wondered what happened to the quarian ark on the way from the Milky Way. It’s not likely that we’ll get another offering in that series, so I was glad to see the game’s loose ends (missing aliens) and one-off gags (elcor Hamlet) handled competently.

Summer classes have started and I’m back on my creative writing bullshit, so I’ll be reading The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard and a free ebook called Logline Shortcuts by Naomi Beaty, as well as miscellaneous craft essays.

Elsewhere on the internet

“Who’s laughing now, assholes?” A letter from Henry David Thoreau to literature faculties at cushy liberal arts schools.

This Vox roundup of great classic literature to read during quarantine was publicized on Twitter as “War and Peace isn’t difficult, it’s just long,” and it will not surprise you that I cosign this take. (It does have a lot of different textures as well as a lot of pages, and I find some chapters more riveting than others, but if you don’t like to read about the absurdity of war then you’ll shortly be onto some parlor drama so hang in there.)

I’ve enjoyed Elder Scrolls Online so much that I’ve contemplated getting involved in Fallout 76, another Bethesda sandbox I’ve enjoyed playing in non-MMORPG form. This account of an organic, player-designed in-game event involving a murder mystery in the style of Clue just about pushed me over the edge.

I am not a big reader of romance novels myself but I LOVE that there is a Twitter account cataloguing how they describe the way male love interests smell. I’m always a little bemused by novels that dwell on scents because I don’t have a terribly discerning nose myself; I don’t think I could name three things my gentleman smells like even if I had smelled him in the last three months. But it is a fascinating trope not only in romance novels (looking at you, Discovery of Witches) but in some literary fiction I’ve read as well; the scents tend to work not only to create a sensory impression but to stand in for appealing male attributes (he’s strong like a tree, he’s exotic like spice, he’s dangerous like smoke, etc).

I have also had Wolf Hall on my mind during these plague times, so I was interested in this reflection on the “sweating sickness” that took Cromwell’s wife and daughters. I was surprised to learn that we still don’t know what sweating sickness is, and why it worked so quickly.

Very excited that The Daevabad Trilogy is going to be adapted for Netflix! Remember when I basically took last February off from reading to reread the first two books? The third comes out this year and I am pumped.

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