Reading Roundup: February 2021

One day my neighbor dropped by for a masked, distanced outdoor visit and handed me a book she had recently finished for her book club.
“It is by a man, though,” she amended.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” I asked, making her laugh.

But weirdly, most of the books I read in February were written by men. Most were lent or sent to me, but I did choose them from my substantial TBR pile (which is spread across half my kitchen table) and I did enjoy them.

The book she brought by was Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, which at first struck several cords of recognition: it takes place in Tennessee, there’s a throwaway reference to The Bozo Show which I watched as a child, and (like me) the narrator encounters and feels alienated by a particular strand of polished, unimpeachable white womanhood at her private school. My sense of familiarity vanished fast; early in the book, a painful break with both reality and any kind of social contract establishes that anything could happen. Oddly, not much does happen after that–until the very end, which felt both inevitable and slightly unearned–but the book’s early weirdness and breezy prose kept me turning pages, and I had a good time.

Another friend lent me The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, which at first I was reluctant to start, anticipating scenes of brutality. They exist, yes. Between violent episodes, though, there are sections that are beautiful and hopeful, full of nostalgia for the passions of geeky Black boys, or beautiful and bleak, narrating the passage of time in a place like Nickel where tedium is a blessing. And there is (typical for Whitehead) a twist that I did and did not expect, and I blew through this book in two nights because I desperately needed to know what happened to those boys.

I thought Cleanness by Garth Greenwell was astonishingly lovely, and masterful at unpacking very physical, very fast-paced scenes in long winding sentences teeming with detail and reflection. I’m a little mad at him for writing about walking with a political demonstration and feeling together and apart from a crowd, in a way I’ve been meaning to but falling short of for five years.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle came in the mail from a friend with a disclaimer that I had no obligation to enjoy it or even read it. But I did both read and enjoy it, for a qualified definition of enjoy–the inside of the narrator’s head is a strange place. He is an isolated man by circumstance, as he lives with a disfiguring injury, but I think also by choice; he has a vivid, macabre imagination, and his narration slides between the real and imagined, present and remembered. Ostensibly these images revolve around two cataclysmic events in his life, which remain somewhat mysterious even at the end–I would have liked more of a resolution to pay off the slow reveal–but this book is more about the journey, and I respect that.

I also read a couple more books for my religious studies class. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Ann Braude is a crisp, accessible study of how Spiritualism corresponded not only to women’s rights but abolitionist activism. It’s not recent, and the argument was familiar to me–I think I must have absorbed the idea from somewhere at some point in my studies–but I still really enjoyed revisiting this fascinating period in history. And I’ve just started Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster, though I will have to hustle through it to get my paper written.

Elsewhere on the Internet

I’ve slowly been easing into accepting newsletters in my jealously guarded inbox zero, but 28 Days of Black History was an easy sell: 28 days of key Black figures, books, and artworks–some familiar to me, some not, but each one delivered with a succinct summary of its importance, and the month really covered an impressive cross-section of history: trans rights, disability rights, critique of carceral culture, food and fashion, and more.

Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides,” an incredible short story by Pauline Melville

McSweeney’s: I’m a Short Afternoon Walk and You’re Putting Way Too Much Pressure on Me. Absolutely brutal.

At Words Without Borders: “Onyinye Miriam Uwolloh’s poem “Ishmael Na My Name” is a sequence of 136 haiku, all written in Nigerian Pidgin English, each summarizing a chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.” I love this concept so much! Moby-Dick, for all its flaws, is a global novel–and retelling it in a hybrid language helps shed light on what it says and does not say about race and intercultural contact.

I read Cleanness just as publicity started to kick off for Kink, an anthology edited by Greenwell and R.O. Kwon. This interview with Kwon and Alexander Chee helped me better understand some of the stories in Cleanness–or not understand, exactly, since I think Greenwell does a really beautiful job of taking apart and examining all of the complexities of a sex scene, but it helped me contextualize those stories and understand what those stories are responding to, in part.

2 thoughts on “Reading Roundup: February 2021”

  1. YOU READ IT! “qualified definition of enjoy” is the perfect way to put it, and even moreso for his follow-up – which I almost bailed on midway through because of how juvenile it felt. I think John Darnielle has a strong book in him, but he hasn’t written it yet.

    But I also see the same (to a lesser degree) faults in Kazuo Ishiguro’s work; love his writing, slept through The Buried Giant and When We Were Orphans. His new book, Klara and the Sun, just arrived here. His books are always spaced out by a few years, so I’m trying not to rush and devour it all at once. But coin flip as to whether I’ll love it or put it down, bemused and a little disappointed.

    1. I DID, and I LIKED it! But it didn’t hurt that it came in some of the best mail I’ve gotten this pandemic. The disclaimer–chef’s kiss. And a few of your zinnia grandchildren are sprouting in a pot on my windowsill. (I’ve saved the rest for warmer weather; I think they’ll like my patio.) Snail mail reply to come!
      I feel like Kazuo Ishiguro is a coin flip for me too, and–unpopular opinion–it’s Never Let Me Go that I didn’t care for. But I also feel like I’m softening as I age (or perhaps as I gain more distance from grad school); maybe if I read it again I’d feel differently. Too bad this TBR pile is strewn all across my kitchen table!

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