Reading Roundup: October 2021

It’s long.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsin Muir. It’s been more than a year since I read Gideon–which I really enjoyed–and in the interim I’ve read various takes on the sequel, some of which found it off-putting. I loved it. I do think it helped to know, going in, that Harrow was undergoing a traumatic response to the events at the end of Gideon. That contextualized the first three quarters of the book, which is mostly written in second person perspective, interspersed with occasional third-person flashbacks to the events at Canaan House that do not go the way I remembered them; it gave me a solid guess as to who is narrating those various chapters, which makes them that much richer given all the little jokes and asides layered in. And I loved the boldness of that approach. I loved the style, which–like Gideon–is as dense with polysyllabic gothic obscurities as it is with irreverent internet memes. I loved that the narrative occasionally goes into alternative universes of itself, including an honest-to-God coffee shop AU, like reading fanfiction of the first book embedded in the second. I love the weirdness of its necromantic fantasy religion, and the aching sincerity with which Harrow worships and practices it. Sure, some of the space science/magic is dicey, but who cares–you don’t come to this series for precision. You come to it for a phantasmagoric fever dream. This one happened to be even more hyperliterate and self-referential than the first, and I couldn’t stop turning all 500 pages until I was done.

Don’t Hate the Player by Alexis Nedd. YA fiction is not my ministry, but I like the author’s pop culture writing and figured it’d be a fun, breezy read about gamers in love. I had no idea I would find this book so charming and winsome. It takes place in Philly! It name-checks Gritty! The gamers all play an MMORPG, like I do! They also draw their emotional and cultural references from games like Mass Effect! The dual narratives (1st person for busy-brained, overachieving Emilia, 3rd person for shy, anxious Jake) are intercut with chat logs from their respective teams’ Discord servers, and I found this actually funny and cute instead of gimmicky and cheesy!

A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan. I almost don’t want to say too much about this one because, counter to my experience reading Harrow, part of the pleasure of this uncategorizable book was having no idea where it would go or how seriously to take its twists. It begins with some grievously cringe social horror, featuring two mostly unlikeable protagonists (although I kind of liked Alicia, creepy as she is) and their equally unlikeable coworkers, including a former coworker who has become a social media influencer and a classic Mean Girl. And after the world’s worst surfing vacation in Montauk, it only gets weirder and more horrific. Did I love it? Absolutely not. Do I recommend it? Not really, no. Did I nonetheless find it fascinating and spooky and occasionally lovely, so that I had to put off needful things to finish it? Do I keep thinking about it weeks after returning it to the library? Yes and yes.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I read Moby-Dick for the first time, so it seemed fortuitous that I came across a used copy this fall. Perfect excuse to read Moby-Dick for the second time, which I have wanted to do almost as soon as I had finished the first. I’ll start when it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.
In the Heart of the Sea draws on a pretty astonishing array of primary and secondary sources to compile a compelling narrative about the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific in 1820, and what happened to the crew afterward–both in the months the traumatized crew drifted at sea and in the years after. It is harrowing; there are pretty ghastly descriptions of what starvation and dehydration does to the body, not to mention exposure and cannibalism. It is astonishing to me that any of the survivors went back out to sea afterward, let alone whaling. I am also astonished at the sheer magnitude of labor, luck, and cruelty that kept the world’s fires lit in the era of whale oil. (One might point out that we have our own analogous cruelties in the contemporary world, and one would be right, but still.) This is an older book and not always as nuanced on race and gender as one might wish, but it is still interested in those issues, and certainly gave me much more historical context for the social dynamics of Melville’s depiction of whale business.

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman. It’s odd–I attended a Zoom event for the book before my copy became available in the library, and while I loved listening to the author chat with another local novelist, I wasn’t blown away by the writing itself. I even put off starting the book because I didn’t think I would love it.
This was some unfortunate trick of Zoom reading, because it turns out that I am blown away by the writing and I do love this book.
The book takes place in California in a not-so-distant future when municipal access to water is replaced with privatized WAT-R, chemically produced H20 which sort of but doesn’t really taste and feel like the real thing. Our introduction to this novelty comes by way of Patrick, an East Coast novelist who is working on the set of a film very loosely based on his first novel, experiencing the California gothic for the first time and both enthralled and repulsed by it all. The film industry turns out to be the ideal setting for this speculative ecofiction written in highly literary, lyrical prose: the characters who become obsessed with the mystery of WAT-R’s provenance are just as obsessed with the other crumbling simulacra all around them: the uncanny WAT-R, the illusions of Hollywood, the broken promises of California glamor, the hollow and half-assed film adaptation, the illusion of choice in late stage capitalism, the impossibility of knowing others. It’s reflective, gorgeously written, occasionally quite funny, and gives a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of both debilitating climate grief and willful climate ignorance. In fact, the book seems to argue that it’s an impossible choice between the two–the last two chapters kind of dissipate into a dreamy erosion of the characters and the plot, zooming way out on geologic time and way in on individual characters coping or failing to cope with their moment. It’s the only way this book could end its argument, I think, and while I think there’s a place for doom literature in the ecofiction canon, the bleakness does make it hard to recommend to friends who struggle with climate anxiety.

Network Effect by Martha Wells. Fifth Murderbot book. I have to say that there is something really enjoyable–and not too frequently experienced in the book world–about reading a serial over the course of several months, with a few breathless weeks in between installments (but not so much time that you forget what happens). This book is a little longer than the first four–like a full-length book rather than a novella–but it has a lot to pack in, since there’s some stage setting on a Preservation Aux survey and then a kidnapping and then a mysterious alien artifact. But this book makes for an important turning point in Murderbot’s understanding of itself as a self and as a person in a community: in order to solve the urgent problem of a hostile ship takeover, Murderbot has to define and lean on its emotional relationships–and that makes it very uncomfortable, okay? Just going to look at the wall for a minute.

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. A slim book that covers a lot of big issues–deportation, addiction, domestic abuse, identity–almost but not quite to the point of being structured around them. What really drives the book is the relationships between women in these snapshot of life in Cuba and Miami (and in-between): mothers and daughters, cousins, neighbors. The prose is deft enough to make each vignette compelling, but I wished there was a bit more connective tissue–especially for Jeannette, whose sympathetic voice carries several of the chapters, and whose disappearance from the text is abrupt and leaves questions. But so it goes in real life, I suppose.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. This book is at its best when describing wildlife and botany: the beauty and power of the wolf population that the central team is attempting to bring back from extinction; the misty, mountainy forests of Scotland where they are repopulating the wolves; the extraordinary brilliance of the natural world, described using Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors. These scenes are drawn in gorgeous, observant, sensitive prose. On humans and human activity, the prose is more opaque. The questions the book asks are important ones: what is our responsibility to the species whose wellbeing has been damaged by human choices–including our own species? Do we take an active role as stewards and protectors, or a passive role and leave nature up to nature? The book doesn’t know, and its exploration of the conflict is more muddying than clarifying–and, as was the case when I read Something New, I just want something a little more decisive from climate fiction these days.

I took an afternoon workshop on writing ghost stories, and we read a few wonderful ones.

“The Ghost’s Apartment” by Lyndsey Reese
Haunt” by Carmen Maria Machado
“The Nuisance” by Alexander Chee

And here are a few more very short stories I enjoyed this month:

Love Scream” by Madeline Anthes
“Leftovers” by Reagan Puckett
“Sadness is Made of Nothing” by Damyanti Biswas

Elsewhere on the Internet

I have not read a single Jonathan Franzen novel and have no plans to start one. It’s not my first rodeo, people! (In this rodeo conceit, both the concept of and figureheads for “literary darling” are the clowns.) But speaking of rodeo, I really appreciated this chronicle of the literary circus that has accompanied this man for decades, and the reflection on when and why literary snobbiness comes into vogue.

This is a fascinating scholarly study that was making the rounds on social media via an attention-grabbing tweet explaining that playing Tetris within 24 hours of a traumatic event can greatly reduce intrusive thoughts and memories of that event. It’s worth pointing out that in order to test this hypothesis, the researchers did not expose subjects to a traumatic event but to a film depicting traumatic events. So, perhaps you might find this strategy has more day-to-day application when used to relieve intrusive thoughts about traumatizing media. Computer Game Play Reduces Intrusive Memories of Experimental Trauma via Reconsolidation-Update Mechanisms

At Lapham’s Quarterly, world-destroying technology in literature.

One of my writing class compatriots wrote about The Ring as a metaphor for how disinformation is spread.

I clicked on this SO fast: A Definitive Ranking of Tana French Novels

One of my favorite living poets, Tracy K. Smith, on one of my favorite poets of the recent past, Lucille Clifton: Illuminate I Could

“Just one of several magical, kale-based Halloween rituals practiced across the British Isles,” okay? Scottish Singles Used to Spend Halloween Picking Kale


October is usually a busy social month for me, but because pandemic and grief, so not so much this year. I did do a volunteer shift at my favorite park during a health fair, and took advantage of that event to do some kayaking as well as some archery for the first time ever. Afterward I dragged my friends through the trails for a tour of the rewilding meadows, and then to the South Asian food market where I bought a giant bag of round candy-red crabapples. These were delicious and sour raw, but there were so many I turned the rest into applesauce, which was tart and sweet and complex.

I went to a Zoom reading, and read “Two students walk into a bar.” I hoped it would make people laugh and I think it did, but I could only see them, not hear them. I went on a twilight walk through my favorite park and learned how to pick mugwort for tea and smudging sticks, and a bat flew over my head in the gloaming dusk. I watched Hocus Pocus with some friends over Discord, and Dune with a friend in my basement; both were extremely excellent times. I tended my garden, which is not overgrown with cosmos and carrot tops as it was this time last year, but I planted some winter pansies and hyacinth beans and have enjoyed watching them grow. I thought a lot about my intention this year, the verb cultivate, and concluded that cultivation sometimes requires inaction and patience.


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