Reading Roundup: July 2021

Luster by Raven Leilani. A perfect summer read: short, sharp, sexy, cringey, so funny. I don’t know if I read much about how funny it is in all its glowing publicity–it’s a grim, darkly observant humor, particularly in its set pieces: being one of two black female employees at a publishing company; trying to negotiate with your shitty landlord; attending Comic Con with your lover, his wife, and their prickly tween daughter. But beyond that, this is just a beautifully crafted, gorgeously empathetic book that explores power and desire in a really smart way. Its protagonist, Edie, is so painfully hungry in every possible way I remember from my early twenties: for pleasure or pain, for attention or affection, for creative fulfillment, for some kind of insight into her own self, which is still forming. I felt both very old and twenty years younger reading this book.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. This book came up in my ecofiction Discord‘s discussions of what to read next for our asynchronous book club. We ended up choosing Hummingbird Salamander, but I’m so glad I picked up this astonishing speculative novel as well. The novel opens as described on the jacket copy: a young couple is surviving in an abandoned Laurel Canyon mansion–long after its moneyed residents have been evacuated from the irreversible drought and dessication of the southwest–and then they find a baby. From there, their journey is interwoven with artifacts from elsewhere in this not-too-distant future–bestiaries, imagined corporate reports, plural first person accounts, lists, this book is marvelously textured in different prose styles–and introduces them to different versions of what survival could mean in these conditions. Its main point of view is written in lyrical and urgent prose, and I deeply admire how finely it threads the needle between trust and doubt. We see what the narrator sees, and we come to believe what she believes, but when she changes her mind it’s quite possible to retrace your steps and find exquisitely ambivalent clues that could lead to more than one conclusion.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. At some point in my life on the internet it seemed that every single person in the world except for me had read this book–and I can’t say I had even heard of it before moving to the Northeast. Small Southern liberal arts colleges have their own mythos, I suppose. But reading about this tiny Vermont liberal arts college and its mysterious cadre of classics majors was absolutely delicious! I hadn’t realized how much Tana French’s The Likeness had taken its cues from this book–although, to be honest, reading The Secret History felt a bit like reading the blueprint for a dozen other books that dwell in isolated academic communities, among ride-or-die friends that are starting to splinter apart, that take literary and aesthetic ideas for religious or at least supernatural mysteries. Bunny. The Magicians. Etc.

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer. I read the whole thing in transit–on an early flight to Memphis, on the flight back, in an airport after the second flight made an emergency landing, and so forth–and I am prepared to accept that the circumstances may have contributed to my grim lack of enjoyment in this novel. I also fully expect that discussing it with the ecofiction Discord will greatly enhance my enjoyment! We’ve only discussed the first two sections so far and I am already fascinated to see that we brought such different expectations to the book, and consequently have such different interpretations. And it’s a mysterious, suspenseful, creepy book, so it merits a little unpacking with a group.
Still… if the only other book by the author you’ve read is Annihilation, and you come in expecting that same profuse, sticky biohorror and creeping uncanny, you may be a little bit off by narrator “Jane”‘s staccato prose and the blank suburban slate where much of the early action unfolds.

I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog, which remained an absolute delight. This book doesn’t miss a chance for a sight gag or situational irony, and it is chock-full of literary and historical allusions–only some of which I recognized, but that only made me want to fall into a Wikipedia rabbithole.

Between the review of British literature presented by To Say Nothing and all the press The Green Knight is receiving, it seemed like the right time to re-read “Gawain and the Green Knight.” I have a translation in the textbook I used as a grader in a gigantic English literature survey course; I know I read it and even graded some papers written about it, but I remember little of the sexy, surreal, mysterious story everyone’s talking about. I’m not terribly far in, but have so far enjoyed the lingering Christmas party scene (in which the poet does indeed emphasize how young and hot everyone in Camelot is, and how thicc the Green Knight is when he rides in).

And at one point I was feeling king of low so I re-read All Systems Red by Martha Wells, and the awkward anxious angst of Murderbot did indeed make me feel better. Also it only took a few hours. It’s almost one year since I read it the first time, so I can’t help making the comparison to last summer: hot and scared and isolated, struggling to read even short books. Reading this novella last summer felt like a cool drink of water, but it still took longer to finish.

Minutiae

I’ve been to my share of readings. Aside from author events at museums and libraries, I used to go to poetry readings regularly in behalf of a friend–even took over book sales at a few, just because I was there and like to be busy. I’ve gone to a few community readings with another friend who specializes in extemporaneous speaking, something I cannot imagine doing myself.

I have imagined reading my own work in front of an audience, more than once. And this month I got to do it at the launch party for local lit mag Toho Journal, held in the beautiful breezy Cherry St. Pier.

The blog author is wearing a blue dress and reading at a podium in front of a crowd in a high-ceilinged industrial space.

“How to Lose an Ocean” | Toho Journal [link goes to online shop]

In other life news: I finally got to hug my family. We spent a few happy days swimming, cracking each other up, and hardly leaving the house except to catch Pokemon.

Elsewhere

I had a lot of fun thinking of examples for this listicle at Sidequest (donate via Patreon and earn the right to vote for your fave!): The Definitive Ranking of Game Fashion Icons, Part I

As someone still blogging like it’s 2005, I was fascinated by this analysis at The Cut of the e-newsletter and the role it fills in today’s bottlenecked attention economy.

Personally I subscribe to a handful of newsletters–mostly friends, mostly silent these days, and a few climate-adjacent newsletters including The Science of Fiction. Here’s the latter on Why NASA keeps sending squid into space.

🗣️ Parable of the Sower adaptation! The word on the street is that we are cautiously optimistic.

I love a good literary adaptation. I also love to hate a terrible literary adaptation, and so does Electric Literature.

I will click on anything Nichole Perkins writes, and she is writing about work and the workplace over at The Riveter.

An allusive, meandering essay on memory and literature.

In my fiction workshop last spring, a particularly fatuous classmate proclaimed that he didn’t believe that literary scandals existed. If you’re reading this blog I suppose you are The Choir, and thus I don’t need to belabor the opposite point by dredging up any recent #metoo and #BLM adjacent implosions in literary communities. Still, I often think about creating a Literary Scandals series on this blog or at least for my writing group platform. This month, I would include this recap of the controversy surrounding a short story titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.” I remember hearing about the story when it was published, but its circumstances are more complex than I knew.

I would also include some point/counterpoint on the recent essay by a woman whose biographical details form the basis for the viral short story “Cat Person.” Twitter absolutely blew up about it for a few days, but for whatever reason this measured take was the only link I flagged to share later. Also:

Like your scandal more salacious? Let’s move over to the art world. Uffizi Is Suing Pornhub After It Turns Masterpieces Into Live Porn

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