Reading Roundup: November 2021

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I put this on my list after I enjoyed Mexican Gothic. Velvet works with the tropes of 70s pulp novels in the way that Gothic worked with the tropes of sensation novels and gothic literature, and it is just as campy, charming, and replete with gorgeous set dressing–fashion, media, music, interior design. I’m simply not as familiar with the style, so I didn’t love Velvet quite as much–and it took me a few chapters to get comfortable with one of her narrators, whose voice feels a bit stereotyped. But the charm and fun one me over, in the end.

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino. I enjoyed the author’s previous novel 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas, and I loved her free workshop on magical realism at Electric Literature (summarized here, although it does not replace the experience of hanging out in a live crowdcast with Bertino and other writers). 2 a.m. is more realism than magical, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Parakeet, a novel that begins with a bride-to-be receiving a visit from her deceased grandmother in the form of a bird. It turns out that that the grandmother-bird is only the first of many surreal disturbances in the week leading up to the bride’s wedding, which includes doppelgangers, body swaps, and mysteriously expanding hallways. Even all of the typically mundane scenery of her daily errands in New York City seem to shimmer with the possibility of strangeness. It’s strange just to be in the world, the book seems to suggest; it’s strange to have a mother and a sibling and a groom-to-be. It’s strange to have friends, and also marvelous, and also sometimes tragic. I loved this little book. The chapters are short and episodic, like a short story collection more than a novel, but that works well for the bride’s point of view and, honestly, I want to steal the story structure for my own writing.
I will say that I’m not entirely sold on the way the story deals with its one trans character, who initially appears as the answer to a riddle posed by the grandmother parakeet, and whose transition is experienced by the bride as both a loss and a reunion–and it’s the bride’s first-person perspective, so her hurts and hopes dominate the transition story. So content note on that, but as the story develops I did find their interactions believably complex for the amount of time the characters have spent together and apart.

Appleseed by Matt Bell was the fall book club selection for my ecofiction Discord server. I’d heard a lot about it via Twitter–Bell is a popular writer in flash fiction circles–yet I was unprepared to be plunged into a world that includes fauns and cyborgs as well as apple trees and dire climate change scenarios. I felt very disoriented for the first few chapters: they alternate between three narrators located in three distinct eras, and the chapters are quite short, so there is little space to introduce both the world and the speaker. The first narrator is one of a pair of early American brothers who plant apple orchards in the barely-settled Midwest, Johnny Appleseed-style; the second is an operative working against the megacorporation that is working to provide proprietary technological solutions to the environmentally ravaged world a few decades from now; the third exists in a new Ice Age one thousand years from now. As I went forward and began to get familiar with each of the narrators, and learned more about their era and their particular position within their worlds, I got more comfortable, and turning pages seemed more urgent. This is a book as interested in storytelling and myth as much as it is in corporatocracy and climate doom, and that may or may not be a selling point for you–I’m on the fence myself–but the three narratives are braided together so expertly, and its imagery is so striking and memorable, that this is easily one of my favorite ecofiction reads of the year.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue. Easily another of my favorite ecofiction reads of the year. Ironically, I started reading this book on the day that a literal trash fire in southwest Philly sent billowing clouds of smoke and the smell of burning rubber all over the city. I wore a mask outside as well as in the subway and in ballet, and I still woke up with an intense pressure headache, sinuses congested with hot garbage.
I mention this because How Beautiful is the story of an African village whose river and air is poisoned by runoff from an oil company. At first it seems to be written in an elevated, fairytale-like style–particularly in the chapters narrated by the first-person plural “we” of the villagers–but of course there is nothing fantastic about a powerful American oil company trampling a community’s rights to breathe, raise children, and live on their ancestral land. As the narrative wheels back and forth in time, the book paints a fairly bleak portrait of the long history of European and American corporate greed in the villages; before oil it was rubber, and before rubber it was human labor. What makes this book incredible, though, is its writing and the way it makes the village come alive on the page, even in elegy. It’s a place with its own secrets and troubles, not romanticized or minimized by its narrators, but its people are powerfully bonded by the history they share. When they come into conflict with the oil company, the ties between them are their strength and their tragedy both.

The Searcher by Tana French. What to say about this hot and cold book? I’m a longtime French fan, and I devoured her most recent release over a weekend. Main character Cal is an American attempting to settle in the Irish countryside after leaving his job and losing his marriage. His fish out of water perspective allows French to really go all in on the sublime, romantic, moody atmosphere of this remote rural community in Ireland: Cal attempts to make friends with crows (he calls them rooks), waxes rhapsodic about the sky and the different textures of rain, and feels appropriately spooked by the utter darkness and solitude around his new land. He encounters a scrappy kid called Trey, whose sullen nervous energy felt believable and unique. Like Cal, I enjoyed meeting his neighbors and listening to their lilting talk–even when it becomes apparent that their banter barely conceals a thicket of complex rivalries, threats, and secrets.
But many notes of Cal’s character–former Chicago beat cop, baffled divorced dad–ring hollow. French typically excels in creating detailed, incisive portraits of deeply flawed characters who won’t admit certain things to themselves or who can’t seem to break out of self-destructive habits; Cal is more hazily drawn than this, his personal revelations less shattering. Also, while the narrators of the Dublin Murder Squad books are police detectives, the Dublin Murder Squad does not exist and so French’s pantherlike detectives are pure fantasy. Like: what if the justice system worked? What if it was kind of sexy while it worked? But Chicago cops are real, so Cal’s dummy act (he doesn’t know any bad cops! he always tried to be a good cop!) feels particularly tone-deaf in this day and age.

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi made for a fitting end to the trilogy, in which a cohort of unlikely allies race to save humanity from the impending collapse of their universe and the mysterious network of space streams that connects their planets. They don’t enjoy complete success and glowing acclaim; there are losses. But this is a lighthearted, cheeky series and I respect the balance of realism and feel-good vibes it achieves.
I read it in part because I was thinking of including the trilogy in one of my new book rec roundups for Sidequest. It’s been quite some time since I read the first or second, and I was startled to see in the acknowledgments (yes, I always read these) that this book was completed before the pandemic started. The whole trilogy was, in large part, a response to the last presidential administration. But its none-to-subtle metaphors (I mean, the interplanetary government is called the Interdependency) hold up well for other large-scale disasters we’ve encountered since then.

I started my slow, savored re-read of Moby-Dick and thought about including my reading reflections here, but… it seemed like a lot.

Some poems and flash I liked:

Four-step Guide to Being the Final Girl by CJ Scruton
So Much an Outlaw I Belong on a Wanted Poster by Holly Pelesky
Response, Years Later, to Two Male Poets I Overheard Discussing How Sick They Were of Women’s Poems about the Body by Meghann Dunn
Eulogy by Dina L. Relles

Elsewhere on the Internet

How Netflix’s adaptation of Passing reflects the novel’s own time — and ours

Moby-Dick is a furtively anti-capitalist book–or not so furtively, in some chapters–and contains some really stunning reflections on how the work of whaleships lights the world, sending millions of gallons of whale oil to fuel lamps all over the globe. But it was really In the Heart of the Sea that brought home to me how much money, power, trade, and consumerism depended on the efficacy of a scrappy team of fewer than twenty men, sailing days away from visible land and sending their vulnerable bodies out on tiny boats to brutally murder immense intelligent creatures whose lives we still barely understand. It would be an over-the-top metaphor for capitalism if it wasn’t literal.
So while The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind (by one of my favorite science writers, Ed Yong) is ostensibly more of a climate link focused on the ecological impacts of whaling, it made sense to me to include it here, since I’ve had whale books and metaphors on my mind.

I didn’t get very far in Shang-Chi but I did admire the bus fight scene and also this bus driver’s analysis of it:

Love Philly:

Minutiae

I wrote this flash last spring, when the long dark winter was finally starting to thaw and vaccination was on the horizon. Beyond thrilled that it found such an excellent home.
How to escape a time loop | Okay Donkey Magazine

I absolutely loved writing this themed book roundup, and am excited to start a new series. Come for the book recommendations, stay for the thinly veiled literary analysis of contemporary haunted houses.
LoreQuest: Three Fantasy Novels that Dungeon Delvers Will Love | Sidequest

I also really enjoyed getting up on my food in games soapbox once again.
November Roundtable: Food and Cooking in Games | Sidequest

I started a second job this month, working at a beautiful museum and gallery in Old City that specializes in woodcraft. I love spending time in the space, learning about art made of wood, and I find my coworkers charming and the work pleasant. It is draining to have two jobs, but as the days get shorter and darker it’s good for me to stay busy.

And I do. This month I took four ballet classes a week, rehearsing Nutcracker choreo with my classmates just for our own pleasure (not for a performance). I took a professional writing class that reminded me how little I know of the tools I work with every single day. I watched Passing with a friend, which I recommend; it’s gorgeously filmed and languorously paced, but my attention span needs someone to yell with about the visual beauty and all that which is not said between characters. We also started watching the Wheel of Time series, which is terrible but we are having a great time without having any prior knowledge of the story. I had two people inside my house on Thanksgiving, which is the most people I have had inside my house at one time since March 2020. It was so festive I plugged in my party lights. They did not turn on.

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