Reading Roundup: December 2021

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. I put a hold on this book after I read Something New Under the Sun, which blew me away even if I had quibbles with the ending. You Too shares the same elevated, incisive prose and obsession with the surfaces of things–even more so than Something New, because You Too‘s plot is driven by resemblances, preoccupied by physical appearance as well as the terrible sameness of modern lives. This book would have an interesting conversation with A Touch of Jen (summarized in the same link), which is also obsessed with bodies–especially with how women choose or are expected to manipulate their bodily appearance–and how easily one might slip into another’s life. I admire both books, especially You Too for its cleverness, and I wonder what it would have been like to read them as a younger woman. At my age, I’ve spent so long trying to unlearn the religion of external beauty and conformity that the books feel young to me.
This book is not a conventional eating disorder narrative, but: big content note for food issues/disordered eating.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins, which possibly wins Best Title of 2021. One of the things I loved about the author’s previous novel, Gold, Fame, Citrus, is that artfully incorporated texture and worldbuilding via found items from the dystopian future (reports, bestiaries) and alternate perspectives (villagers as Greek chorus). I will free admit that sometimes I don’t closely read “found” texts within novels, such as in-universe letters or memos, because they often come across as inorganic and unearned. However, the collage effect in Gold was illuminating and skillful.
I Love You is also rife with found objects and different textures; one of the earliest chapters is a postpartum depression survey to which the author has given responses that are profane, funny, dizzyingly emotional, highly specific, and mysteriously relatable. There are references to and quotes from the real life of Paul Watkins, father of the author and also of the novel’s main character Claire Watkins. There are adolescent letters written by Claire Watkins’ mother–real or fiction, I’m not sure. The letters are interspersed with scenes from character Claire Watkins’ homecoming visit to the place where she grew up and grieved traumatic deaths. She parties with her childhood friends, bullshits her way through a few author events, semi-permanently abandons her husband and baby daughter, and ends up on a horse farm and an artist commune at various points. There’s a vagina dentata; it doesn’t make as big an impact on events as you’d think. It’s as if the author is challenging you with her same-named character who is behaving like a famous male author having a midlife crisis. Either you assume her work is autobiographical, which people always assume about women’s work, or you say this isn’t real, in which case do you think that a novel has to be real to be meaningful?
I did find myself asking those questions. I did not enjoy the reading experience much, but I did keep reading. The cumulative effect of all those documents and the semiautobiographical narrative was that of a collective, intergenerational, throat-searing scream.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. I kept incorrectly writing the title as The Book of Being and Nothingness, which of course is a different book–although some of the influence of that book is perceptible in this one. The world is terribly, almost oppressively present and alive for the main character Benny Oh, who perceives the voices and intentions of objects in the world; I kept thinking of the Heidegger translation I read in grad school (“the world worlds”). There is an interesting confluence of the philosophy I read in grad school with a Shinto-esque attitude or Mari Kondo-esque attitude toward things; there’s even a thinly veiled Mari Kondo character, and Walter Benjamin is mentioned by name. But the animism here is all Ruth Ozeki’s own brand of weird and wonderful. About half the novel is narrated by a book or by the concept of Books, for example; at first I was skeptical, but I came to love the Books’ wry collective wisdom, gentle empathy for humanity, and strong (if occasionally wrong) opinions about libraries.
But this is not just a book of ideas. It’s the story of Benny, his well-meaning traumatized mother, and his jazz musician father whose tragic death sends the rest of the Oh family spiraling. It’s the physicality and emotional depth of their lives that kept me reading–although it’s also true that I frequently needed to put the book down and read something less heartbreaking for awhile.
Huge content note for mental illness and institutionalized care, as hearing the cries of the inanimate world doesn’t go over well with authority figures. Also, this book definitely made me want to unburden myself of worldly possessions and move to a monastery.

Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard. I’m not sure how or why this midcentury author got into the collective consciousness this year, but suddenly her name was everywhere and I figured, why not. This is the book I fled to when I needed a break from Form and Emptiness, and at first it was comforting to retreat into its crystalline sentences, crackling silences, innocents abroad, party scenes simmering with the unspoken–there are so many parties in these stories and they are delicious even when doomed–and classic themes like marital strife. And when these, too, became too much to bear, I fled right back to Ozeki’s brand of magical realism.

Harrow by Joy Williams is being received as a bleak, savage vision of the future, and it certainly does share some themes with doomer climate fiction, but I think it reads best as surrealism. This short book reminded me of A Dream Play and Waiting for Godot more than anything else: eerie liminal landscapes, distortion of time, discordant interactions and seemingly nonsequitur occurrences that follow dream logic or form a new logic out of their haphazardness. True, the narrative is very clear that the nightmarish world is a result of human pollution and emissions, but its allusions and vivid imagery belong more to poetry than to spec fic world-building, and its savage sense of humor seems to be aimed at skewering the futility of existence rather than any real world institutions. If I were still in grad school I would be adding this book to my exam list as an example of how contemporary fiction grapples with modernist forms and themes. But that’s not a recommendation, per se.

I sometimes moonlight as event staff, and worked the book launch for Fire is Not a Country by Cynthia Dewi Oka. I had to buy a copy. I like poetry and all, but I loved that she incorporated different forms of media into the reading. She had Zoom recordings of poet friends reading poems like screenplays; she had recordings of herself reading poems over lush, emotive music composed by her son. Check it out:

But I also just really enjoyed the poems. My favorite at the moment is “Art of Revision.”

Some more poems and short stories I liked:

In my next life let me be a tomato, by Natasha Rao
The Lonely Humans by Jennifer Chang
Build-A-Bear by Marne Litfin

Elsewhere

Bog book! Bog book!

I don’t watch Succession and so didn’t read the Jeremy Strong profile, but I highly enjoyed reading about said profile in Anne Helen Peterson’s Culture Study, which is also a really informed and interesting history of the celebrity profile and why we get so excited when there’s a kind of mean one.

If I still updated my old food blog, I would be all over this Food in Space JSTOR roundup.

On the other hand, if I still updated my old food blog I would be obliged to talk about and weigh in on this writer’s terrible saga of a horrifying Michelin star meal in Italy. The part that carries it squarely into my former scholarly territory is when the chef writes back with an argument that there is crappy art, there is highly skilled representational art, and then there is the only art he cares about: abstract art, and his food.

An urban planner’s perspective on the environmental implications of freeing everyone from the Matrix!

I’ve been telling y’all: Get lost in the gorgeous fantasy of the Daevabad trilogy, based on Islamic legends

In part because I graduated high school at the turn of the millennium and came of age in the awkward aughts, I’ve been enjoying the Purity Chronicles series at Vox. This article looks at the false promise at the heart of Sex and the City, a show that was relentlessly mocked even when it was airing, not least for its crimes of centering both women and relationships. I watched it semi-ironically but obsessively as a young adult, first when the heavily censored reruns aired on TBS and then again, in order and uncut, on Netflix DVDs. I understood it was a fantasy, but at the same time it was one of the most prominent and glamorous road maps to dating. It’s cathartic to see some of its hypocrisies as well as its grace explored in this essay.

Minutiae

I had a short piece about quinces in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice. Capsule Stories is a print magazine, and I have to say that it was really lovely to open the mail and find my piece packaged so beautifully. Inside and out: whatever the interior typeface is, the Qs have extra-long tails so that every “quince” has a lovely little flourish. You can find out how to acquire a print copy or ebook on their website.

I did not travel for the holidays, a decision my family and I made months ago. I miss them, and look forward to seeing them in the new year, but I do not regret staying home. I love a quiet holiday, even when there’s not a pandemic on. I watched bootlegs of Broadway shows I’m never going to get around to seeing live. I watched every available episode of Station Eleven and cried my eyes out. It’s so good!

I worked my weekends at the art gallery and continued to really enjoy talking to strangers about art. Before Omicron necessitated more caution and isolation, I went to a couple museums and parties, and watched Wheel of Time with my friend, and got Covid-tested often. The best thing I did all month was dance Nutcracker choreography with my ballet class–not for a performance, just for us. We had been practicing for weeks, and it came together like a dream.

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