Reading Roundup: August 2021

I went inside a library for the first time since March 2020! It wasn’t my neighborhood library or the big shiny new one they built in South Philly a few years ago, because those are both closed. I went to a library in a secretly wooded and green area of South Philly. The building itself is small and stately–a brick cube, with steps and faux columns and heavy wooden doors–and inside it is sunlit and cheerfully painted with murals. I was picking up a book on hold, but since I was INSIDE a LIBRARY I browsed and checked out one more. It felt just like visiting the neighborhood branch of my childhood: the adult book selection is eclectic and out of date, but who needs a book to be new?
(I do. I have seven more holds waiting to come in, mostly 2021 fiction.)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer, a breezy book–as it would have to be, since each short chapter takes place in a different country. The main character, a midlist author, books himself into every literary engagement he can so that he is half a world away when his ex-lover marries another man. I liked its hapless protagonist, and admired the way he and all the other characters felt well-drawn and plausible–as did each location, which the author brought to life with a sense of knowledgeable specificity and only a smidge of smug insidery-ness. This book is also kind of insidery about literary laurels and awards–perhaps one of the reasons it was so well-lauded, because the literary world loves books about book business the way Hollywood loves movies about show business.
Yet I can’t say I enjoyed the book, and I suppose that has as much to do about timing as anything. It’s hard to read about gratuitous globe-trotting in these pandemic and climate crisis times. And the frame, which I will not spoil as the book is at such pains to conceal it, does not work for me at all. As soon as I started to suspect the ending, I read the rest of the book with a kind of steely disapproval (which could have been fun but wasn’t).

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynn Jones. Remembering how much I enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, I picked up this book at a used bookstore accompanied by a tall, thin, fair-haired, bespectacled man (who himself took home a copy of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor). I mention this because Fire and Hemlock is in part about stories coming to life, so it was just a little weird that one of the principal characters is a tall, thin, fair-haired, bespectacled man. On the other hand, the book version of this man is far weirder. Main character Polly is about 11 when she meets Mr. Lynn, the cellist who fascinates and irritates her in equal measure, and their friendship is sort of charming; Polly is a weird and somewhat neglected child, and Mr. Lynn sends her books and letters and makes her feel special as she comes of age in the midst of divorce and suburban ennui. Their friendship is also deeply unsettling, and I kept flipping back to the copyright page to see when the book was written. Didn’t they have stranger danger in the eighties? Why are the adults in Polly’s life okay with letting Mr. Lynn hang out with her, unchaperoned? To be fair, Mr. Lynn does pose a danger to Polly, although not of the sort that had me so worried, and while I devoured this moody, somewhat spooky book, it left me feeling as ambivalent as Fledgling by Octavia Butler.

The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with recipes) by Kate Lebo. I loved this beautiful book, but let me say this first: big content note for food issues. The first chapter, featuring the tart aronia or chokeberry, also delves into two lifetimes’ worth of chronic illness and dieting: the auhor and her mother experience different conditions, and make different choices regarding food, but both use food as medicine–or, more precisely, they prioritize healthy eating (as they individually define it) so that when their chronic illnesses inevitably flare up, they can say Well, it wasn’t anything I did–I was doing everything right. Or, conversely, It must have been something I did, I will try to do better. And I am intimately acquainted with both and felt very gratified to see this dynamic on the page, but also: you are warned.
Aside from that, the book is as useful as it is lovely to read. It’s about one-half memoir, one quarter botany, one quarter recipes–like the kind of food blogs that the internet loves to hate, but if the long personal story before each recipe was knowledgeable about plants and insightful about the significance of emotional and domestic labor. I loved chapters about some of my favorite fruits–Italian plums, like the one tattooed on my shoulder, and rhubarb–and learning about new-to-me fruits like medlar (which makes an appearance in Shakespeare).

I borrowed In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado from a friend, and I literally read it in one day. It goes fast–most chapters are very short, like flash, and some are only a sentence or two long–and each one explores a different genre, trope, or problem of storytelling, so it becomes very urgent to keep turning pages and see what will appear next–as well as to see how the narrator will finally free herself from her abusive partner. (It does not happen as one hopes or imagines, and the short, sharp little chapters tackle that problem too.) It’s very smart, both genre savvy and emotionally intelligent about love and desire and self-abnegation.

I borrowed What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon from a different friend, and it is as I expected from the author’s excellent Your Fat Friend explainers: clear, accessible, nicely balanced between the author’s research and her personal experiences. As a longtime fat acceptance blog reader, the material wasn’t new to me–but honestly I can always use a refresher, and this short but comprehensive book is good for that purpose as well as for a fat politics 101.

I also re-read a book that I deeply disliked the first time. I did not enjoy it the second time, although I did appreciate the craft exercise of reading a book with an eye toward what simply does not work. I also enjoyed being egged on by a friend to find one-star reviews of said book, which included this short but devastatingly accurate dismissal: “Too much dissertation. Not enough story.”

One morning the wonderful Pome newsletter began appearing in my inbox again. Some favorites so far: “The Immortals” by James Tate, “Poem” by Frank O’Hara, “Refusal to Mourn” by Andrea Cohen.

Elsewhere

When I read Piranesi, I noted that it was a rich text that lent itself to many interpretations. I also noted the weight of having its protagonist explore ruins and piece together the history of the people it once held, if any–which I thought about again when I read The Starless Sea. So I was pretty excited to see this thoughtful essay about how the labyrinths in these books can be read as queer desire.

A chat about spec fic, ecofiction, and video game storytelling with Appleseed author Matt Bell and Mary Woodbury at Dragonfly.eco.

New Orleans is heavy on my heart and on my mind this week, as it always is this time of year, but consider taking a moment to celebrate the beauty and history of its unique architecture: The Black Architects Who Built New Orleans

I often link to announcements when books or games I love are being made into movies, but of course it takes a long time to make a movie. For example, remember when we first learned about the adaptation of Nella Larsen’s Passing? It was 2018, so long ago that I was still doing link roundups separately from reading roundups. And now it’s almost time: Passing will be on Netflix on November 10, and I cannot wait. (Also, note to Past Sara: the director is mixed race, not just a well-meaning white lady.)

Anyway, all this to say: Congratulations, Future Sara. Enjoy this adaptation of Victor LaValle’s The Changeling starring Lakeith Stanfield, whose lanky appeal and wounded gaze are so perfect for this main character.

I’ve always loved the short, breathless prose poem “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, which pummels the reader with practical advice that reveals the privations and sexist oppression the narrator expects her interlocuter to experience. In “Teacher,” at McSweeney’s, the barrage of advice for educators returning to the classroom is sanitized of the affection and care you can read into “Girl” (if you squint and the light is right), and the interruptions (“shouldn’t we have a guidance counselor for that?“) are brutal.

Minutiae

My ecofiction group has been talking about solarpunk. I dedicated part of my last climate roundup to the topic and to thoughts on climate storytelling more generally–what’s the point of it, what responsibilities do we have, and so forth.

Inspired by The Book of Difficult Fruit–and also by Alexis Nelson, who dropped an informative video at just the right moment–I foraged chokeberries or aronia from a bush in one of my favorite local parks. It’s just a small city park without much landscaping, but this month the few bushes between the benches and the basketball court were heavy with dark berries that even the birds and squirrels didn’t want, and it was simply too tempting. I cooked them into a simple syrup with rose hips and elderberries, and the result had a hint of the winelike tannic taste that make these berries unpleasant when raw, but mostly the rich tangy sweetness I associate with blackberries. I mixed the syrup with seltzer and shared with friends.

I submitted a pile of very short fiction and nonfiction flash this month, and the rejections have been trickling in. So it goes, sometimes! I am looking forward to some time off in September when I can focus on writing and revising. It’s so much easier when I’m in a workshop, but this fall I’m working on finishing my professional writing certificate.

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