Reading Roundup: September 2021

It’s fall, y’all. I’ve been reading a lot.

Detransition, Baby! by Torrey Peters. An absolute delight. I read it in about two days. One of the blurbs compares this book to an updated, trans-centric Sex and the City, and one of the characters actually makes a similar comparison (in that Sex and the City outlines the few paths to fulfillment that are culturally acceptable to women, which is also something that interests the characters in this book). But Sex and the City only wishes it could be a story like this, which is as dishy and scene-y and mean as you could desire while also being smart, thoughtful, and kind. Which is to say: the characters can be pretty mean to one another, and they make terrible choices that they are self-aware enough to name but not enough to avoid, but the narrative gives them all a little grace and empathy by exploring how and why they hurt each other and themselves. It reminded me of Luster in that way, but written in a warmer, more conversational voice.
This would also be a candidate for books about grown-up people–while the main characters are all still in their 30s, they have all encountered and crossed watershed moments in their lives where everything they thought was true was destabilized. 

Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky. An excellent book for summer, featuring a feckless himbo of a creative writing professor and an odd assortment of women (and one man) who find their lives disrupted by his beauty and inattention. And, you know: swimming pools and lobsters, affairs and STDs, a Chekhov’s gun, some nods to “this is how we live now” written around the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. If the five narrators all felt a bit samey to me, they at least carried the story along breezily; if some of the ethical knots they introduce never get unsnarled, don’t worry about it.

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi. I’ve always preferred Oyeyemi’s short fiction to her novels–Mr. Fox‘s playful metanarratives and allusions were an absolute revelation when I first read it, and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours offers one jewel-like, mesmerizing tableau after another, but those qualities don’t seem to carry over to the novel-length narratives. Still, I had gotten excited for this one, which was received with breathless praise–plus, a mysterious train full of surprising cars, rolling through surreal landscapes! Whimsical pets and passengers who may or may not be there! I did enjoy those moments when they arrived, and no doubt if I spent time revisiting this story I would uncover more details and deeper connections than I perceived on my first read. (Which, incidentally, took place largely on a train–coming and going from New Jersey, gazing out the window at the surreal landscapes of that state.) But the magical and surreal images in this novel seem designed to deflect attempts to ascribe meaning, rather than to draw the reader in.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is every bit as delicious and clever as everyone said it would be. It absolutely nails everything that gives traditional gothic novels their power, and makes it text rather than subtext: not just the spooky house but what the house represents, the horrors of ill-gotten wealth and class inequity; not just the narrative foils of light and dark characters but all the creepy race stuff that stands in for; not just the titillating threat of female imprisonment but the unsexy reality that marriage often spells socially sanctioned imprisonment for women in past eras. If the prose is a little more purple than I typically like my contemporary novels, it is well-suited to the subject. And you could make a cinematic color palette out of the vividly described clothes, wallpapers, and landscapes in this book. 

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. As someone who once aspired to be an editor and who dallied in academic book publishing for a bit, I was absolutely hanging on every word spilled about the terribly toxic dynamics in the fictional publishing house Wagner, where main character Nella is an editorial assistant. And it is unflinching: from the terrible and tone deaf diversity town hall meetings held in response to #BlackLivesMatter to the ways white editors shut down Nella’s concerns about a Black caricature in a white-authored novel to the dozens of microaggressions she endures as the only Black employee at Wagner (until the titular Other Black Girl appears), this book explores the whiteness of publishing in damning detail. It also, more tenderly, explores the pitfalls and rewards of forming bonds based on shared cultural identity: like the Harlem Renaissance author she shares a name with, Nella feels isolated from both the Black and white communities in some ways, and the trajectory of her relationship with Hazel sheds light on the limits a hostile white world places on them both even as it reveals Nella’s longing to see herself as she first sees Hazel.
But it’s not just a workplace drama, it’s a thriller with some truly wild twists that border on zany–I kept thinking of George Schuyler as I read it, with the implications of shadowy organizations and spies sent to sabotage both Black and white gatekeeping. The thriller plotline was sometimes hard for me to follow, but that tender core kept me wanting to find out what happens to Nella and the other women caught in its snares.

Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy by Martha Wells. I enjoyed re-reading #1 of the Murderbot Diaries so much this summer that I intended to download the rest, but the ebooks are oddly expensive. #2 (which I’ve read) had a much longer wait time, so I moved on to #3 (Rogue), which circles back to the mysterious GrayCris corporation that revealed itself in #1. This novella felt a bit like a companion quest or loyalty mission in Mass Effect: to secure a party member’s best performance, take a side trip to a nearly abandoned mining facility, fight some new enemies, gain some new information, and unlock a piece of background for the main quest. In #4 (Exit), the action returns to that main quest as Murderbot must once again rescue the PreservationAux crew we met in #1, which means (alas) confronting emotions about having friendships with these humans, and about what it might mean to be a free sentient being.

I’ve been dipping into The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod. There are some real bangers in there, like “A Woman Shopping” by Anne Boyer and the one by Anne Carson. I copy out lines that I love and keep them in a file intended to shake up my creativity when I’m feeling stagnant.

I guess I usually mention my course texts here too. This term it’s Biology: How Life Works, a massive textbook that accompanies my class on life sciences. I am taking it because neither my Southern public school education nor my ravenous adolescent consumption of Michael Crichton novels prepared me for a college-level class on neuroscience (which is what I wanted to take next). But it’s a fascinating class in its own right: we’ve been getting deep into how DNA works, which (thanks to complementary amino acids and certain code regularities) is delightfully similar to a cryptogram style puzzle, and consequently how drugs work, and it’s a whole fascinating microscopic drama I knew nothing about.
I haven’t been using the giant hardcover textbook, though, except once to smash a bug.

Elsewhere on the internet

It’s been a good season for poetry. At the end of last month, the excellent short poem newsletter Pome reappeared, and now The Slowdown is back–with Ada Limón (who I love) replacing Tracy K. Smith (who I also love!!) as host. You also love Ada Limón, even if you don’t know it–her poems tend to get circulated around Twitter and Tumblr, capturing something in the air we didn’t know needed said. Examples: Instructions on Not Giving Up, The Conditional, Love Poem with Apologies for my Appearance. Anyway, The Slowdown! You can listen to it as a podcast or get it as an e-newsletter as I do.

Posting this link is probably the closest I have ever gotten to fangirling about a celebrity on this blog, but I love Tony Leung! He makes sadness so handsome. And I love how this profile by Alexander Chee explores his appeal, his work in Wong Kar Wai films (my fave), and what led him to play a villain in a Marvel superhero movie.

This was a fun thread. I found a few others remembered some of the mass market fantasy YA of my youth. I posted about Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Below the Root trilogy, books that were out of print when I was teenager but which I checked out of the library and loved because they feature a dystopia hidden in a high fantasy landscape. I encountered the story for the first time as a vividly colored platformer for Apple IIe, which it turns out quite a few other people played and remember.

I’m hoping to immerse myself in a melancholy autumnal playthrough of Night in the Woods, so I am bookmarking this for later: The Real Horror of Night in the Woods

(But they shouldn’t have had to.) In Central York, kids rose up to save books on MLK, Rosa Parks from their parents

Love Strindberg, and one of my best theater memories is performing in the surreal proto-modernist A Dream Play, so I can absolutely imagine the playwright photographing the void and imagining it contained galaxies. In 1893, a Swedish Playwright Thought He’d Captured the Stars

Minutiae

Very excited to have this story, which my friend and I have told innumerable times at countless parties, published online.
Two students walk into a bar | Cleaver Magazine

I started doing this Minutiae section to replace the cooking diary I missed doing for my old food blog, but truly it’s been an uninspiring summer in that regard. The standouts are the herbal lemonades I started making (juice and zest of one lemon, 2 tablespoons hyssop or tulsu/holy basil or similar herbal tea, honey to taste), and the garlic confit I made because I was tired of my bags of CSA garlic sprouting before I got around to using them. I put the confit on everything: smashed it onto cheesy toast and the last open-face tomato sandwiches of summer, tossed it with veggies destined for the oven, threw a few cloves and semi-solidified oil in the pan for recipes that call for butter, like my fave black pepper eggplant and tofu.

Speaking of cooking:

I spent much of this month in a terrible slump. Few things cheered me during that time, but I did download the Walk to Mordor app and dutifully log my peregrinations into it. The app doesn’t track your steps–I just typed in whatever my Fitbit told me for mileage–but it does offer a bit of Lord of the Rings text when you have traveled the same distance as the Fellowship.

A screenshot of the Walk to Morder app, featuring an excerpt from the moment when a group of elves passes Frodo, 41 miles into the journey.

They do cover a lot of ground. It took me two weeks and many days of hitting my 10K step goal to finally encounter the black rider. The following weekend, wandering tipsily all over the city with a visiting friend, I passed through Buckleberry Ferry and Crickhollow. After walking approximately 80 miles in three weeks, I am still about 20 miles shy of Tom Bombadil’s house.

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