Reading Roundup: August 2020

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. The first half is a heady, florid coming of age story set in the pressure cooker of a high school for performing arts. I am not sure it is correct to say that I enjoyed it–the suffocating teenaged desperation for any kind of validation is rendered both sympathetic and insufferable, which is admirable even as it is wounding. The second half visits some of these characters later in life. Arguably, this section should have been even more wounding–who among us is not humbled to see our high school heroes relegated to hometown obscurity, and our crushes lose their youthful beauty?–but I absolutely loved its dry, brittle wit and fury.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. A delicious space opera, with a vision of the classic Something’s Rotten in the Empire plot that felt fresh and fascinating: political machinations take place in poetic meter, flowers are beautiful and deadly, and ancestral memory is literal in some cases. This is a short recap for a long book, but I just really enjoyed the ride, enjoyed the lush otherworldly setting, enjoyed how much fun the book had with cross-cultural communication and political identity.

Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I had to space the essays in this collection out, they gave me so much to think about. I ordered the book because I had encountered and appreciated Cottom’s thinking on Twitter, and because I wanted to read more essays from scholars who write for general audiences without oversimplifying. But if I’m being completely frank, I also expected to find smart new angles on ideas I already hold, or try to. Instead, some of these essays really challenged me. For example, as a literary scholar with an art history background, I’ve thought about and written about the concept of beauty six ways from Sunday. I’ve never thought about beauty the way Cottom does–and I really had to sit with that, and think it over. It felt great, honestly.
At this exact moment, my favorite essay is the last one, “Girl 6,” in which Cottom very lightly but effectively juggles half a dozen slippery topics–Twitter, black women’s hair, prestige and clout, the media vehicles for prestige and clout, and so on–and catches each and every one by the end. I also loved how she writes throughout these essays about her identity as a Southern person–which obviously means something very different to her than my Southernness means to me. As a person who grew up in the south but (probably permanently) relocated up north, I often find myself in the position of explaining Southernness to people who have not spent much time in the region and tend to think of it as a place of ignorance and homogeneity, which glosses over the region’s diversity of demographics, culture, and activism. I am very bad at explaining this. Cottom is succinct and direct about her Southernness and its place in history as well as her own identity and those of her peers.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I devoured this tight, tense story in one day. It is a delight. The plot unfolds in short, titled vignettes like prose poems, which is part of what makes it such a fast read. The prose is spare and direct, sketching out the lives of narrator Korede and her sister and backdrop of Lagos without belaboring any of the beats that could make this suspenseful story feel soapy. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little soap–it’s just not what this book is doing. If I had not yet gotten back into my reading habit, I think this book would have delivered the short sharp shock I needed.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is, like War and Peace, a perfect quarantine book. It’s long, yes, but the chapters and sections are short. There are many characters, yes, but they each shine on the page in arresting particularity. It is a masterclass in multiple perspectives delivered with a critical but empathetic eye; when narrators if the early chapters appear as side characters in later chapters or vice versa, I felt a lurch of delighted recognition. There is little punctuation, with line breaks instead of periods indicating the space between thoughts, which gives each page the look of a long poem. But the lines are elegantly constructed and easy to read, even when a character’s history is painful, and I relished spending my lunchtimes immersed in these lives and their prose poetry. I am already looking forward to rereading, and recognizing more of the subtle hints and observations layered in.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I get two poetry newsletters in my email now. One is Pome, a treasure trove of short poems and excerpts that are alternately piercing and soothing; the other is The Slowdown, featuring longer poems and an accompanying explanation from Tracy K. Smith so that I feel like someone is talking to me about poetry. You can listen to the latter as a podcast as well.

This Mashable post about a game I haven’t played (Ghost of Tsushima) gets at what I like about Twitch: it helps fill in a little bit of the social experience of gaming that I miss now that I don’t have casual houseguests plopping down on my couch to drink wine and fight dragons.

Hey, copyediting isn’t just a game–but if you want it to be, there is Stet!

Remembering Toni Morrison, the Bird Whisperer

Meg Elison tweeted a thread about being a card-carrying nerd, well-read in scifi/fantasy classics, but found that the old guard didn’t have much to teach her about what scifi/fantasy is and will be. It is a good thread but I cannot stop laughing at the image of the old classics as terribly outdated cookbooks:

How to be a woman who loves books, according to every TV show and movie I’ve ever seen: “Sniff every old or sort of old book you see. Close your eyes when you do it. If a stranger is reading the book, trust that they will be charmed by this. People are often charmed by you, the first book-lover they have ever met.”

Really beautiful reflective essay about family legacy written by Rebecca Rukeyser, granddaughter of Murial.

An incredible essay from Carmen Maria Machado about being a fat woman and looking for fat women in books and film. Seriously, so fun to read! Also fun to reclaim the voluminous women of our childhood television.

This amazing TikTok sent me down a rabbit hole reading up on the Mid-Atlantic accent of early 20th-century film:

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