Reading Roundup: April 2021

I started the month in a bit of a reading funk. Literal piles of unread bought and borrowed books, and none of them were the book I wanted to read next. But then! My neighbor explained that a library not far from me had started doing curbside pickup, so I placed ten books on hold. I miss the library so much. Specifically I miss the library on the campus where I work, which had a manageably small collection of bestsellers tucked away in a high-windowed corner, so my memory of browsing there is always streaked with sun or rain clinging to glass.

Anyway, I borrowed Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Lavery from this same friend and it shook me out of my funk. In some ways, these short punchy pieces make for breezy reading, especially since some of them rang familiar–I’d read earlier iterations on Twitter, or in the author’s newsletter, or even on The Toast in kernel form. But most of them come around to reflections on the author’s gender transition, which is to say that they come around to existential questions of how we know ourselves and what we owe of ourselves to others, which are not so breezily passed over. I was particularly moved by an essay that is sort of about Golden Girls but also about the author’s struggle to acknowledge and address his drinking problem, which also connects to his struggle to acknowledge and address his transness. Beyond that: How to acknowledge or even correctly identify what you want. How to imagine a future for yourself.
And, well, if that isn’t the theme of my entire 2021 to date. Acknowledging that there are things I have wanted simply because they are easy enough to have, and that there are some things I tell myself I don’t want because I’m not sure I can have them. You don’t need to have considered transition yourself for those contemplative moments in the book to shock and discredit you.

Something inspired me to pick up Nothing Good Can Come From This by Kristi Coulter before I was even quite finished, and I alternated them for a few days. Nothing has really stayed with me since I read it in 2019, even though I was nowhere near ready to change anything about my drinking yet. Since then I’ve become really immersed in reading nonfiction essays and also in sober-curious culture, so I couldn’t quite access that initial feeling of astonishment from my first read. But the book still made a meaningful complement to Something, in many ways: both circle the painful process of really seeing yourself through all the noise and clutter and finding out something true about yourself that’s worth rewriting your life to uncover.

I picked up Gilead by Marilynne Robinson ages ago and although I’d heard it was lovely, I kept putting it off. The premise–an old priest writes a long, meandering letter to his very young son, knowing he will not get to see him grow up–seemed too slow and sad to hold me. I was grievously mistaken and I wish I had it read it earlier in this pandemic. It is quiet, yes, but it is lovely and luminous and no less urgent for strolling along at such an unhurried pace. I read it at an equally unhurried pace, savoring the narrator’s reflections on beauty, grace, and the poetry of everyday life.

I restarted The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. Apparently I got 40% through this massive volume last March? I remember NONE of it, so I started over from the beginning. The density of Mantel’s prose and her fine attention to physical and psychological detail made for a comforting read at first, but I started turning pages faster as Cromwell gets closer to the end of his story, step by misstep. The massive Mirror and the slim Gilead made good companions for each other, too: both preoccupied with the meaning and legacy of accumulated life experience, both fascinated by the razorfine line between love for worldly beauty or pleasure and love for something resembling a soul.

I gave We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson a quick re-read because I was writing a short story featuring Constance Blackwood for my writing group. Still an absolutely delicious book. Surprisingly, an excellent spring book: Constance’s garden is just starting to put out rhubarb when the story begins, something I wouldn’t have noticed as keenly on my first read a few years ago.

I’ve read some rave reviews of Godshot by Chelsea Bieker, and it is just as bleak and beautiful as everyone says, but for the first quarter or so I wasn’t sure if I wanted continue. Teenage girl growing up in an isolated cult gets a special assignment? I thought I knew where that was going. And in some ways I did, but even if the hellish manipulation of the cult comes as no surprise, the protagonist’s transformation is somehow both miraculous and believable. I’m glad I kept on with it; watching the main character become herself was worth it.

I’m very excited to start reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer with my book club next month–it’s an important text in environmental studies, and one I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. If you’re interested, anyone can join the Rewilding Our Stories Discord server and read along with us.

Some stories:
Twisty Little Passages by Jess Zimmerman
Unraveling by Karen Heuler
Ada Limón on Preparing the Body for a Reopened World (more of a fragmented essay than a story, long and indulgent, and I love it)

Some poems (some of which were yoinked from #toastietwitter friend Rachel‘s roundup):
When I Tell My Husband I Miss the Sun, He Knows by Paige Lewis
Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris
Gather by Rose McLarney
So What if I’m Not Ready to Leave Yet by Adam Falkner
Prayer by Nicole Homer
Flirtation by Rita Dove

Elsewhere

This is Good for You is a podcast that’s all about things that make people happy, like plants or playing instruments, and why and how they make people happy. What makes me happy is that there are full transcripts for each episode!

Ross Gay, who wrote the beautiful poem about Eric Garner gardening, unsurprisingly has some lovely and grounded ideas about cooking, pleasure, and growing your own food.

Moby-Dick takes are almost an instant link from me; Cooking with Herman Melville, even more so.

And here’s Ling Ma, author of Severance, writing about meals. Seriously, I close up shop at my food literature blog and now all y’all want to publish beautiful writing about food.

Not about food, actually about some important and influential Black feminist writers: How Kitchen Table Press Changed Publishing

I like Helen Oyeyemi’s novels, but I love her short stories–or novels that are sort of interwoven out of short stories, like Mr. Fox–to the point that I enjoy books like Gingerbread a little less than I might otherwise because it’s not as arresting as What Is Not Yours is Not Yours. All the same, I liked reading about what was on the author’s mind as she wrote her most recent novel, and now I am anticipating it with some excitement.

I loved The Favorite, and have been meaning to watch The Lobster by the same director, but it sounded a bit…. intense. But there’s nothing like an attentive queer or queer-adjacent reading to get me excited about a movie, and I appreciated this essay by Adam Bumas for that reason: Changing the Grey: How The Lobster helped me come out as asexual

How a pandemic made Dracula more relevant than ever

Classic video games for adjunct professors

Hilarious but honestly, good question: An investigation into the lack of kissing in the Marvel Cinematic universe

Speaking of MCU, The Science of Fiction interviewed the co-founder of the company that designed some of the technology used in films like Iron Man and Black Panther, which also works with real-life companies on how real technology should look and feel.

Minutiae

I let the vanity URL for my decade-old food blog expire this month. It was high time to let it go: aside for a couple of whims to analyze Russian Doll or talk about cognitive behavioral therapy, I haven’t wanted to write about food culture since defending my dissertation in 2016. Still, I feel a little sad to let it go. At one point, that little hobby blog became a platform: it got me speaking gigs, publications, and friends in the food scholarship world. Letting go of that feels like letting go of a level of engagement I can’t hope to match in the world of books and culture discourse, especially not with the same level of freedom I had to be no more or less than myself on the food blog. Writing the food blog also elevated the prosaic details of my daily life into a public journal: revisiting it is like reading an old diary and remembering things I’d almost forgotten.

There’s no reason I can’t include the prosaic details of my daily life on this blog, though. So: in April, I made homemade tonic water and needlessly complicated syrups to support my non-alcoholic cocktail habit. I made jamu from pressed tamarind and fresh turmeric and ginger. I bought fresh tamarind and squeezed out all the seeds and veins, and the pulp was so perfectly tart and earthy that I drank it as is, no added sugar or spice. I made rich, tangy soups like moqueca (fish stew with tomatoes, coconut milk, and limes) and sweet potato stew with kale and peanuts. I started a rewatch of Fleabag with some friends. I planted one tree on Earth Day, because the city has cracked down on tree applications and we weren’t permitted to plant more, and I went to my favorite park often to clean up the trails. I had a couple of flash nonfiction pieces accepted for publication (links to come, eventually). I started the month laboring to get out from under the dregs of winter doldrums, and finished the month excited about the spring ahead. Every year I forget what that feels like, but if I write it, maybe I will remember.

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