Reading Roundup: March 2021

I spent the first three weeks of the month in an intensive writing creative nonfiction workshop, and read a few pieces of flash every day to discuss. The second spring term started in the middle of that–I’m taking fiction writing this semester. These are some of the short pieces we read in those courses that I can’t stop thinking about, plus a couple of others that were posted to sites I read around the same time.

House Call” by Andrew Bomback
“Known Killers” by David Wade
“11. And I’ve Been Searching Ceaselessly For You Ever Since, Mon Amor” by Beth Ann Fennelly
“Useless Bay” by Blair Braverman
“If” by Jenny Patton
“Eternal Sunshine” by Tom McMillan
“Campfire” by Donna D. Vitucci
“Cannibal” by Rachel Lyon
“The Temporary Job” by Hannah Gerson
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong

The Secret Place by Tana French. I hung onto this book like the last truffle in the chocolate box–it was the only Tana French novel I hadn’t read (except for the brand new standalone), and I was saving it for a treat. It turned out to be a carrot when I was hammering my way through daily workshop assignments, and a reward for finishing the final projects for my religious studies class. I devoured it, of course, but it surprised me how differently French’s prose hit me when I was on a daily diet of literary essay and memoir. Like taking a sip of wine after eating gelato–the wine is a little rougher, more acrid when your tongue is coated with sweet cream. And with teenage girls at the center of this mystery, there are a few sour notes early on–moments that seemed contemptuous of youth culture–and I can’t say that all of the flat characters got fleshed out with French’s characteristic attention to detail. Nonetheless, I got what I came for. In spades: there were eight witnesses and all of the questioning took place in the course of one day, so it was absolutely jam-packed with tightly paced mind games and character studies of interrogation.

Then I picked up Faithful Place by Tana French and re-read it, because I wanted to stay in that universe a little while longer, where people are clever and talk fast and can read a face like a book. Then I picked up The Likeness and re-read that. Then I redownloaded In the Woods and re-read that. Rereading mysteries is such a specific pleasure: knowing who the killer is from page one, seeing the clues so carefully planted, seeing the narrator seeing them and not fully understanding. And with the tension of the psychological mystery almost gone–almost because I couldn’t remember all the details, so there were still some surprises for me–I could pay more attention to the other themes that someone what eluded me on a first read. The economic struggle and housing issues that frame each location for murder are no mystery, but on my first read I didn’t fully grasp the loneliness that pervades each book. The Likeness especially–I’d found the inhabitants of Whitethorn House odd and not particularly appealing, but now that it’s been a year since I’ve piled into a car with my faves and made each other weep with laughter, I understand Cassie’s yearning to belong to a group.

Then I thought maybe I should read one of the new-to-me books in my pile, so I picked up Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’m only partway through; I may or may not finish. Owens is a naturalist, and her knowledge and appreciation of the marsh environment really makes Kya’s scenes sing; I’d happily spend every chapter paddling around with her in the little marsh boat, watching deer and tadpoles and other things that don’t speak in dialect. I’m not well-acquainted with the North Carolina regional accents but neither, I suspect, is Owens; she relies a bit much on phonetic spellings (b’leeve for believe, etc.) and not on rhythm and syntax, which has the effect of othering the characters rather than capturing their voice.

Elsewhere on the Internet

Reading The Plague during the plague with a group was an incredibly moving experience, and I appreciated this reflective essay about the context and meaning of weather in the book. It’s true outside of fiction too, especially early on when we were nervous about even leaving our houses: the weather became a way of marking time, a collective experience we could share when we could share so little.

When I read The Vanishing Half I noted how different it was in tone and structure than early 20th century novels of passing. Naturally, I loved reading the author’s own thoughts on one of the best-known examples, Nella Larsen’s Passing–in particular her interpretation of the ambiguous ending, which was the subject of my senior thesis paper in college.

I am thisclose to taking a neuroscience course–have become obsessed with brain chemistry after a year of trying to manage sadness, isolation, and anxiousness–and this isn’t changing my mind: Eight of Literature’s Most Powerful Inventions—and the Neuroscience Behind How They Work

The Ecological Imagination of Hayao Miyazaki

Just a beautiful and quietly devastating essay on grief and the body and the failure of imagination that is structural racism: Writing Myself Back Into My Body and Into the World

Speaking of bodies: an exercise about writing the fat body without judgment.

Hanging onto this for when I finally get around to reading Gilead: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marilynne Robinson

Anther article I’m essentially bookmarking for later, since I have run out of New Yorker articles: How Octavia Butler Reimagines Sex and Survival

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