Reading Roundup: January 2022

January was a good month for having time to read–on holiday break, on a plane trip, on days and nights too cold to hang around outside.

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken. I read “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark” at Electric Literature ages ago, and still think about the particularity and reluctant emotional depth of it. That story may still be my favorite of this collection, but there are common traits throughout the stories: quite a few characters are older, like Bruno, and likewise entrenched in their own tastes and routines and slightly sour disillusionment with the world, and yet undone by love (romantic or familial, or sometimes from both directions at once). That unraveling, and the sensation her characters have of never being at home wherever they are, is what makes even mundane scenarios like visiting a water park compelling and moving. This collection is definitely a Book For Grown-up People; even her younger narrators seem to be viewing themselves from the future, distantly aware that the temporarily mortifying experiences they weather will be watershed moments, permanently shaping the adults they become.

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman. I remembered being a little underwhelmed by The Rules of Magic, a prequel to Practical Magic, but I felt it was worthwhile to get in touch with the Owens sisters and their curse. And it was! But while the plotting and touches of magic remain fun in this sequel to both books, and the commitment to the transcendence of love remains campily sexy, the writing just isn’t trying very hard. Some chapters hazily slip in and out of different characters’ perspectives or repeat descriptions in a way that feels like a rambling storyteller lost the thread. There’s a long section where multiple characters handle centuries-old books while wearing cotton gloves, which is a good way to damage an old book even if it is magic. (Use clean, bare hands!) I know it sounds nitpicky–I had a good time!–but I write this as a warning to my future self. If I am ever so lucky as to be publishing books in my golden years, grant me the care of a vigorous editor and the wisdom to listen to them.

Sand, Water, Salt: Managing the Elements in Literature of the American West, 1880–1925 by Jada Ach. It has been years since I picked up a volume of literary criticism–in fact, I consciously avoided it after completing my degree and relearning how to read for pleasure. But this one appeared on the New Books shelf at my campus library, and I was intrigued by the concepts. I’d almost forgotten the particular pleasure of reading another scholar’s close readings of fiction, whether or not I’d read them myself–I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz, for example, but the author’s analysis brought scenes of it to life for me. I have read McTeague and I don’t remember it being nearly so gay as the scholar suggests, but I can buy it. Since I’ve been out of touch, I can see that I have a lot of reading to do in ecocriticism and queer ecology to match my pace in reading ecofiction, and I jotted down a lot of sources to examine later.

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change by Thor Hanson. I strongly recommend this book! I mentioned it to my ecofiction Discord server because I think it would be a valuable resource for spec fic writers trying to imagine the future of climate change, but it’s accessible and interesting enough that anyone can get a lot out of it. As I summarized in my last climate roundup, the book briefly outlines some of the challenges plant and animal species face in the changing climate: rising air temperatures, an increasingly acidic sea, the timing of blooming and pollination getting out of sync. But most of the book describes different ways animals move or adapt to face those challenges. I love this for so many reasons, not least because it depicts nature as a dynamic and changing force, not a passive sphere being slowly depleted by human greed. Don’t get me wrong, human greed is causing a lot of problems, but the results will be much more complicated than “all the birds are dead” (c.f. Harrow). And complicated poses its own challenges, but more opportunities to identify and respond to environmental problems. This is something that will come up again when I start studying invasive plants…. more to follow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. This book took my breath away. I read it fast and just let it all wash over me, feeling overwhelmed by the cascades of detail. Admiration for the beauty and distinctness of its description–not just the magical touches of yellow butterflies following doomed lovers and Aurielano’s little golden fishes, but also the poetry of rains and grasses and hard work and obsessive reading. Unease at some of the characterizations–women don’t fare well here, they pretty much bear the traditional burden of defining themselves by the family home even when they are given rich inner lives and distinctness as characters. Envy for this incredible invention–a town and a family whose saga is also the story of the rise and ravages of modernity–which seemed to just pour out of the author in 18 months. I borrowed the book from the library but I need my own copy to revisit and unpack.

These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall. I had a Kindle First Reads copy from before I cancelled my Prime membership, and I started reading it when I ran out of other books on my flight home. Ideal in-flight reading: short chapters, suspenseful serial killer plot, some quirky characterization. The writing is overwrought and some of the classic thriller tropes are handled here without much introspection (despite promises otherwise from breathless cover blurbs) but I was interested enough to finish the book when I got home.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton. Impulse loan from the library’s bestseller shelf. I got big Bridget Jones vibes in the first chapter, which introduces us to the main character’s supposedly-messy-but-actually-posh life as a single lady in London, but the book goes on to tell a more interesting story than that. Tentatively dating again in her early 30s after a long-term relationship ends, the narrator analyzes the patterns and behavior of men and women (especially men) on dating apps, and offers post-mortem reflections on how we get to know strangers on first dates and what we learn about them in intimacy. Although the narrator doesn’t apply the same reflective rigor to her own behaviors–and gets pretty cringy when she compares her hot masc boyfriend to her soft sweet ex, or when she grits her teeth through hangouts with her married friends like Carrie Bradshaw–much of her analysis is pretty insightful, and occasionally mortifyingly accurate to my own experience on apps. (As she says, we are none of us as original as we think we are.) So, either fun or devastating to read if you’re dating.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall. A finely cut gem of a book, short and lyrical, like a braided essay on a novella scale. The strands of the braid are the narrator’s coming of age with a disabled, artistic mother; the narrator’s own artistic education and success; and the narrator’s tragic love story, which unfolds in a fictional pandemic like a blend of ebola and coronavirus. I wonder what it would be like to come back to this book in a few years; in this exact moment, all the pandemic scenes struck a sour note for me, although they are reasonably in tune with the emotional tenor of these times.

On New Year’s Eve I played some online games with a few friends, but we also read these poems:

“New Year’s Day” by Kim Addonizio
“After the threesome, they both take you home” by Sue Hyon Bae

Here are a few more short stories and poems I liked:

A Tree Can Kill a Whole Family by Amy Stuber
Civilization by Brendan Joyce
Battle Vest by Berry Grass

Elsewhere on the Internet

I’m Captain Ahab And I Say We Must Never Transition Away From A Whale-Based Energy Industry

Having just read a novel about ghosting, Brandon Taylor’s newsletter rereading Sense and Sensibility as a novel of ghosting was a whole lot of fun and much to think about.

Some of y’all lit mags do sound like this though.

We want a story so experimental that it actually horseshoes back on itself and is conventional. We want you to outright plagiarize Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” and brazenly pass it off as your own work.
We want stories that don’t waste time. Put us right into the middle of things. Start a story midway through a sentence. Start a story midway through a word.

I loved this column about the 90s band Garbage and Shirley Manson’s powerful, glamorous, fluid performance of gender. I too remember listening to songs like “Queer” and thinking of it as innuendo, like “oh haha she can’t really be talking about being queer queer, that’s not allowed, she must mean it the other way”–and as the writer points out, that’s how Manson and music critics talked about the song too. I absolutely loved their first two sullen, grungy albums and equally loved the poppy, playful pivot of the third, but I haven’t listened to any of it in many years. In my heart of hearts, I might have worried that the winky, insinuating lyrics of songs like “Cherry Lips” and “Androgyny” are too much of their time, faux-edgy in 2001 and passé now.
But you know what, they are bops. This column made me put on a Garbage playlist and that was a Good Decision.

Minutiae

Once again, I simply love the freedom to express myself at Sidequest. In this installment of my book rec series, I reflect on what keeps drawing me toward Mass Effect and stories like it. I hope it’s as fun to read as it was to write.
LoreQuest: Four Books You’ll Love If You Love Mass Effect | Sidequest

January was a strange, transitional month. I spent a long weekend in Memphis with my family–a very indoor weekend, given the weather and the variant, but it was good just to hang out. They got me hooked on Pokemon Go, several years late. Let me know if you want my trainer number.

Between the travel and regular time off for the holidays, most days in January felt like I was starting something over again. But it was really just a continuation. I went to my jobs. I started a new writing workshop and dropped by virtual writing sessions when I could. I watched The Witcher with my neighbor. I began rewatching Station Eleven with some friends via watch party because it is just that good. I walked around in the snow.

1 thought on “Reading Roundup: January 2022”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s