Reading Roundup: June-July 2020

Like many folks, I started summer by ordering a stack of black-authored books. Most of mine are still en route–if that’s you, too, be patient! Some of them are back-ordered as booksellers struggle to meet the demand. But as it turns out, I had little time to read. I felt angry, anxious, and afraid for much of June. If that’s you, too, well… those feelings are rational.

As July ends, there are still plenty of reasons to be angry, anxious, and afraid. But routine can provide stability and opportunities to reflect, so I’m trying to get back into my reading routine.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I have the paperback edition, which includes some updates and reflections by the author. This book is a masterclass in connecting personal narrative to larger cultural contexts–something I’m working on, personally, so I appreciated the craft. It’s also so readable that I wanted to go from one chapter to the next, but there’s a lot of information packed in, so it would probably be better to go slowly, especially if some of the ideas are new. Most of my direct education in concepts like intersectionality and privilege happened in graduate school–in fact, studying intersectional feminism was probably the most meaningful experience of my graduate school career–but academia can bring its own obfuscation to complex topics, so I admire the clarity with which Oluo explains, as well as her suggestions and scripts for how to develop a habit of thinking intersectionally about race.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. As a longtime Butler fan, it’s a little embarrassing that it has taken me so long to get to this classic. It is just as timely now as it ever was: hyperempath Lauren and her followers face water shortages and raging fires in California (due to a combination of climate change and human greed), consider cops to be little better than criminals, and constantly have to evaluate whether to stay far away from other people or to help them. Butler has a unique talent for writing violence that is underscored by Lauren’s ability to feel others’ pain; her fellow travelers defend themselves when they must, and those scenes are unflinchingly graphic without crossing over into sensationalism. Terrifying, and memorable.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I had a feeling that this author’s newest release would strike just the tone I wanted as spring became summer: beautiful but melancholy. This book is more in the vein of The Singer’s Gun than Station Eleven in that it’s preoccupied with how and why people commit fraud, and that it takes place in an array of beautiful, interesting environments peopled by stylish, interesting characters. All three books share an elegiac feel and delicate, lyrical prose. At times this story seems to hinge a little more on poetry than on plot, but just go with it–let it wash over you.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark. Like The Black God’s Drums, which I loved, this is another vivid, fast-paced alternate history novella with a supernatural twist. This time the scene is set in Cairo in the early 20th century, where women are agitating for voting rights and the city is traversed by a network of trams powered by steam and magic. An utter delight, and between this book and the Daevabad trilogy I feel like my understanding of the middle East magical universe is enriched and expanded.

All Systems Red and Artificial Condition by Martha Wells. These are two short, breezy books in the Murderbot Diaries series, and I devoured them. Murderbot (as it calls itself) is an intelligent organic/machine hybrid that was designed as a high-tech bodyguard for interplanetary endeavors, but it has hacked itself into a higher plane of intelligence. Interestingly, its human-like capacity for free thought just makes it kind of depressed and aimless. It watches a lot of television. Humans make it uncomfortable: it doesn’t like eye contact, prolonged social contact, or physical contact–like me, in other words. In the second book, it meets a ship who has a lot of feelings, and they bond over watching trash TV. It’s a delight.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Good lord, there was a whole lot going on in the book world this summer.

Where to start? Okay, shout-out to J. K. Rowling for forcing the rest of my peer group to grapple with the same moral question that afflicts me and my fellow literary scholars: what do you do when the books you love turn out to have been authored by someone with repugnant views? Welcome! Let’s hit some basics.

  • First of all, just so we’re completely clear: trans and nonbinary people are who they say they are. Loving, protecting, and recognizing trans and nonbinary people is important, and doing so does not harm women, lesbians, children, or any other group of people (except transphobes, but it doesn’t REALLY harm them, it just makes them mad).
  • Second, I do believe we have some responsibility as consumers to withdraw our financial support from living authors, artists, musicians, and other creators who cause harm. Think of a quadrant with axes that go from low risk to high risk and low cost to high cost: boycotting one of the lowest risk and lowest cost ways you can communicate dissent. In the same vein, I support the publishing professionals who withdrew their labor from JKR’s forthcoming book.
  • But what about money that has long ago been spent? What about all the years of emotional investment you’ve poured into this universe? I hear you! In my own experience, I have to put that question to the early 20th century poets whose poetry does something pleasing to my brain but who were variously of misogynists, antisemites, and scoundrels. Can I love a poem about love if its author was personally a hateful person? I don’t have an answer, but I do think it’s important to ask and to think about it.
  • Here’s what I think: if I make a ceramic vessel and you fill it with water, which quenches your thirst–the vessel or the water? I think that the books, poems, and imaginary universes we love are the vessels, and our love fills them with meaning. I think there’s room in that metaphor for the artist’s craft, the literary scholar’s knowledge, and the reader’s interpretation.

Anyway. That was just, like, the beginning of the summer, before I gave up on writing notes as the days wore on. There was an abysmally written and obscure letter in Harper’s that I think this LA Times article does a good job of explaining and debunking. I don’t have any skin in the game where the National Book Critics Circle is concerned, but the way it imploded this summer is a neat (well, messy) case study of why it’s important for organizations to approach antiracist work with transparency and good faith.

In Philly, folks are continuing to march and agitate for change. In bookish news, the director of the Free Library stepped down after weeks of pressure from employees (who circulated a letter explaining their concerns) and authors (who canceled their virtual events in solidarity). We often talk, in abstract terms, about librarian heroics, particularly in cities like Philly where the library can be a safe haven for people who need help; the letter from Black library employees outlined the ways that we fail to support them and help them safely support the community. Library Journal has a fairly detailed story. I hope the leadership at one of my other former employers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, takes note; they have a lot of work to do.

I have tweeted my feelings about taking down statues of genocidal historical figures (I am for it!) so this is all I’ll add about the kerfuffle close to my home. Shot:

Chaser:

That’s enough news. Here’s some fun.

I meant to post this back in May: possibly my favorite post in all of Tumblr, which starts off by imagining life on the planet Hoth, and becomes a collaborative fic starring Stabby the Space Roomba, a droid with a knife taped to it.

May I recommend Unfuck Your Habitat? They have a website and a book if you’re not on Twitter, but the tweets have been killer this summer. Good ethos: do a thing or two to make your space more livable; do a thing or two to make the world more livable; do some self-care. Spread it out. Small, realistic tasks.

For future reference: 5 Low-Prep, GMless Games to Play from Far Away

I’ve been watching a lot of TV and movies. Loved Palm Springs, loved The Old Guard. The Babysitter’s Club is as good as everyone says it is. I must have read a hundred of those books and would never have imagined them holding up, but the Netflix series manages to modernize the girls’ lives in ways that feel authentic and earned. What did carry over is a sense that what makes kids (and their sitters) different is what makes them special: a shy or rambunctious child isn’t a problem, just a child. It’s sweet.

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