Reading Roundup: July 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I’d forgotten any reviews or synopsis I’d read of this new release by the time I got my hands on a copy, so I floated from section to section quite pleasantly surprised by the movements of its plot across several centuries. As a fan of The Singer’s Gun and The Glass Hotel as well as Station Eleven, I loved the feeling of recognition when I encountered some of her favorite character types as well some actual recurring characters from previous novels: lethargic Edwin, who watches 1912 bustle by from a hotel window; tough but wounded Mirella, who also appeared in Hotel; Gaspary, a fuck-up who finds redemption; and Olive, a novelist from the second moon colony who is tired of answering questions about her prescient pandemic novel. This novel is itself a pandemic novel, which is not a genre I’ve enjoyed much these last two years, but putting parts of this one on the moon somehow made it work for me. It’s also a mystery and a time travel novel–but, you know, a lyrical and melancholy version. You don’t read Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel or Emily St. John Mandel’s crime novel to read the epitome of those genres; you read her versions because they are beautiful and thoughtful and gentle and sad.

The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber was the Rewilding Our Stories book club selection last month. It is a coming of age story and a fantasy with folkloric tones set in Mombasa, written in an elevated, highly lyrical prose that resists categorizing the book as young adult fiction. It took me some time to warm up to the style and the world of the book–I found myself having to reread certain passages because the action was made somewhat obscure by poetry–but I did enjoy and admire the writing enough to continue, and by the end I was eagerly turning pages. The turning point, for me, was when the main character returns from her hero’s journey, newly aware of her own limits as well as her strength and bravery, and must get on with her somewhat restrictive village life. Some of the scenes that follow are genuinely funny but still lyrical and sincere. I’ve seen reviews that call the main character an “anti-heroine,” but that doesn’t sit right for me–she’s not the opposite of a hero, but she is very human. Her story alludes to the traditional hero’s journey of Western canon while resisting it and complicating it.

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton. If you love The Secret History but felt that the central clique’s elitism and passion for art and literature were better suited for teenagers, you might like this book. For me, it fell a bit flat, despite the dishy, intimate narrative voice that made me love Social Creature by the same author.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney. This was a desperate airport purchase when I got stranded in Boston between flights, and there’s something I absolutely love about that. I mean, yes, I prefer to borrow from libraries and buy from local indie shops, but I might never have gotten around to buying or borrowing this book on purpose. I’ve been putting off reading it. I liked Conversations With Friends well enough, and I watched the beautiful, moody TV adaptations starring beautiful, moody people, but there is just So Much Discourse about Sally Rooney and it doesn’t match my comparatively detached experience of reading or watching those narratives. But I had a few hours and nothing to read, and it made as much sense as anything to buy this well-marketed, widely-distributed paperback from one of a half-dozen Hudson News shops in this one airport out of hundreds of multi-Hudson airports across the nation. Another layer of irony for a novel that is ironic and conflicted about the mechanisms of book business.
I am astonished at how much I loved this book. In other hands, the clinical 3rd person descriptions of characters checking their phones and looking at each other with unreadable expressions might have been tedious; the long philosophical emails sent between the two primary female characters might have been precious. Instead, I found it all absorbing and a little eerily prescient. I see too much of myself in all four main characters, find their closely-observed habits a bit too accurate, and it unsettles my sense of individuality. I want to find their misunderstandings and shiftlessness meaningful because I want to find my life meaningful. If they’re boring, I’m boring. Sad but true.

When I got home, I discovered that my central air was not functioning. It was a rough week for working from home, but there was a sort of nostalgic pleasure in being too heat-languid to do anything in the evening but sweat, eat fruit, and read a juicy fantasy novel as I used to do during adolescent summers at my grandmother’s AC-less house. In this case it was The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik, sequel to A Deadly Education and just as imaginative, exciting, and deliciously readable.

For Publisher’s Weekly this month, I read The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman. You can read a review I collaborated on for My First Popsicle.

Some short prose I enjoyed this month:

Alice Beck’s Girlfriend by Rae Theodore
Minuet by Rumaan Alam

Currently reading

A friend recommended The Book of Delights by Ross Gay to me, and it really is EXACTLY my jam. The poet Ross Gay (perhaps best known for his beautiful elegy for Eric Garner, A Small Needful Fact) set himself the goal of writing down things that delight him every day for a year. Of course he didn’t actually do this every day, as he explains in the intro, but the more he practiced the more he got in the habit of looking for delights, until the delights just seemed to find him and present themselves. Small sensory pleasures: the curve of a coffee cup, a bright red flower growing in a sidewalk crack. Ironies, remembered joys. It’s a short, light, lovely book that I could have finished quickly, but it seems worth taking my time.

Elsewhere

What Counts as Seeing: A conversation between Alice Wong and Ed Yong

A sort of overview of the shift toward sweeping, multi-genre, multi-POV approaches to climate change in speculative fiction.

Do I have any rich friends? Here’s a compelling case for you to become a patron of the arts.

Minutiae

I wrote this micro in March 2021, during a SmokeLong intensive workshop. It had been one year since I had last seen my ex-partner, 9 months since he broke up with me by email, and 6 months since I asked for my key back. Pouring it all out into a breathless sentence did seem to provide what the title promises. Another year has passed since writing it, and I’m so glad this piece has found a good home. Gladder that its emotional core feels worlds away.
Closure | Vignette (Yellow Arrow Publishing)

I also found a new home to reprint my CNF micro that was published in Toho Journal last summer, since Toho sadly shut its doors.
How to Lose an Ocean | Ellipsis Zine

The beginning of July was about feeling at home in my new residence, full of firsts. The first time I cooked in my kitchen: stir fry with radishes and collard greens. The first time I drank morning coffee in my little yard, with an opulent spread of tomato and burrata toast, summer cherries and plumcots, and sweet potato pastries from a nearby Vietnamese bakery. The day I finally set up my home office at a real desk in a room with a window. The first time my old cat climbed up onto my bed–using the little cat stairs that I placed there when I moved in–and discovered the pair of pigeons I watch from my bedroom window every morning. She looked back at me and chirped, as if to say Hey! Are you seeing this?

Elsewhere, I had brunch with some of my classmates from last spring’s writing workshop, went swimming at a friend’s apartment complex, and watched the sunset from another friend’s roof. I went to Memphis to spend time with family during a hot, sunny weekend of swimming, trading Pokemon, and playing board games. I went to Baltimore for a day trip with friends, and although we were in the midst of a heatwave, there was a lot of surprise and laughter and delight careening around the Visionary Art Museum and walking along the inner harbor. I reminded myself that it is my post-2020 intention to embrace cheesiness and sentimentality. I put on a sparkly headband and a baby-pink ballet skirt, and performed choreography to “You Will Be Found” in a beautifully decaying old theater with my ballet class.

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