Reading Roundup: September 2022

I devoured The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. It’s book with big Secret History vibes (Ivy League university with secret societies, and murder) as well as A Discovery of Witches and The Magicians vibes (also there’s magic, did I mention that)–and that honestly should be too much plot for one book to manage, even at 450 pages, but it’s a real page-turner with just the right balance of mystery noir and supernatural awe.

I’m obsessed with The Employees by Olga Ravn, a translated work that is shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s a slight book, composed of brief “statements” that run from one sentence to a page and half, which comes across a bit more like prose poetry than a novel. The statements are given by workers (human and otherwise) on a spaceship that has picked up a variety of strange objects from an alien planet. The workers are assigned to different shipboard rooms with different objects, and while their words about the objects is more evocative than descriptive, reading them is like tasting a chocolate assortment. Some are gross or creepy. Some smell good, emit beautiful light, engender feelings of affection or desire among the crew. Some of the staff statements don’t mention the objects at all, but are preoccupied with the actions of other crewmembers, or (especially for the synthetic crew members) the nature of life and sentience and emotion). I couldn’t help visualizing some of the scenes in titles like Mass Effect and the Murderbot series where space travelers encounter objects that influence their thoughts… but those scenes are often kind of hokey, and this is a gorgeous, meditative book.

Clean Air by Sarah Blake. A story about the tedium of being a stay-at-home parent to a very young, spooky child…. with a dash of climate fiction, magical realism, and murder mystery. The climate fiction premise is actually quite interesting: imagine if, out of all the possible apocalypses we teeter on the brink of, the one that decimates civilization first is air made unbreathable by pollen. A greatly reduced population shelters in places like hospitals, manufactures robots to build air-tight towns, and gradually does “return to normal” with a heaping helping of trauma and nostalgia for the past. That could be very moving and interesting, but in the voice of the numb, glum narrator, the nostalgia pieces just come across as shortcuts–like they belong to a more contemporary story about the disaffected mom–and the magicky and murdery pieces are unconvincing, almost objectionably so.

The Past is Red by Cathrynne M. Valente is a lot of fun for post-climate-apocalypse spec fic set on the floating trash island in the world-that-has-become-ocean. The narrator is exuberant and voicy, the trash island setting is surreal and playful, and there is plenty of suspense and unexpected joy in the neighborhoods made of candles or moldering books or pill bottles. When a troupe of performers rolls up to Garbagetown on a floating amusement park, I realized… this is Station Eleven, if that novel was sarcastic and irreverent instead of grave and elegiac. The message tracks. Survival is insufficient.

Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens. I can’t help being drawn to what I guess you called literary historical fanfic, although books under that umbrella are frequently rote and pedestrian. Infrequently transcendent: Wolf Hall, The Book of Salt. And then there is the perfectly titled Briefly, a Delicious Life, which is short, dripping with gorgeous imagery (the oranges! the sea!), breathless with romance, and an absolute pleasure to read. The premise–which is that the ghost of a 15th-century girl in Mallorca spies on George Sand’s romantic getaway/artist’s retreat with Frédéric Chopin–is tissue-thin, and yet! The girl ghost works strangely well as an observer-narrator: like us, she falls a little in love with these historical misfits; like us, she desires to see and feel what they see and feel; like us, she knows where their story will end, but gets caught up in the telling anyway.

I finished The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, and wrote about it here. I worked through more of Ed Yong’s An Immense World, which has greatly expanded the number of spooky nature facts I can terrorize people with. I am in no hurry to finish it, because it is extremely dense with information–absolutely bristling with wild details about how animals see and smell and feel pain–and it desperately makes me want to write science fiction just so I can create an alien species based on Earth’s oddest animals.

For Publishers Weekly, I read Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm. You can read the review I collaborated on for The Black Period.

Some poetry and short prose I enjoyed this month:

On Being Asked, “What Is Your Dream Job?” by Ally Ang
On Friendship by Hagit Grossman
Marilyn Monroe Lets the Livestock In by Emma Brankin

Elsewhere

I really enjoy every installment of Lyz Lenz’s newsletter, perhaps especially the Dingus of the Week, but this week’s Dingus is literature-adjacent: The TERF who shall not be named.

The Twisted Life of Clippy

I watched the entirety of Severance over Labor Day weekend–at the same time I was reading The Employees, actually–and I was reeling. It’s an incredible show, well written and suspenseful and scathing yet kind. I wanted to read everything I could after it.
Sadly The Feast of Severance is not about the food scenes–oh my god, it’s a relief I don’t run my food blog anymore because we simply do not have time to unpack all that–but it is an interview with the writer for some background and insight. Mashable has a food ranking, though. Here’s a spotlight on some of the art references (in a show where there’s a whole department for Optics and Design).

It’s a hand-to-mouth world out there: Taco Bell Quarterly and the Rebellious Poetics of Living Más

Sad to hear of Hilary Mantel’s passing. I liked this short piece of hers reposted by Granta: a little rumination on belief and objects and marriage and a fact I never tire of, which is that geologists lick rocks to identify them.

As a Lizzo fan and a sometime staff member of various museums and archives, I love this so so much.

Minutiae

I didn’t stay home for a single weekend in September except the longest one, which I spent writing and working on my house.
The next weekend, I went to a friend’s home for a weekend birthday party, like a character in a murder mystery. The first guest arrived at 2 p.m. and the last guest who wasn’t sleeping over left at 1 a.m., so it’s good to know that even in our 40s we can still party like that.
The weekend after, I went to a wedding in central Pennsylvania and danced in a room on the side of a hill that overlooked the lush patchwork of farms and blue mountains beyond. It is so, so pretty out there, but difficult to enjoy, since the adorable gingerbread towns we drove through were bristling with ugly political signs.
Last Saturday I staffed a table for watershed stewards at the Delaware River Festival, inviting people to play a quick and easy game about what does and does not go down the drain. It was actually very special to talk about water and watersheds right next to the Delaware River, which I had spent time reading up about for my certification; we could point to the drains pictured in our game, point to the watershed map showing all the little waterways trickling through the river basin, and then point to the river itself, which receives also our region’s water and carries it out to the ocean. We had a lot of high-quality interactions with both kids and adults, probably the most rewarding of these events that I’ve staffed so far. Then, I took a train as far northeast as it would go and met a friend for brunch and writing on a glorious autumnal Sunday.
This weekend I am going to a beautiful little cabin on a farm in New Jersey, and staying up too late talking with my oldest friend.

This month I met with the instructor of record for the online creative writing class I am teach-assisting next month, and worked on some plans for that. I tried to iron out the new watershed steward newsletter process. I played Portal 2 co-op with my brother; Portal 2 is still a very excellent game, it holds up. I re-watched Wolf Hall with a gentleman friend who had recently read the books; Wolf Hall is very excellent historical storytelling and still holds up. I received some plant babies from a dancer in my ballet class and tended to my growing indoor and outdoor gardens. September felt very busy and at times a little hectic, but in the dreary winter months to come I hope I remember this month as full, fulfilling, meaningful.

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