A whole lot going on in this busy, beautiful month.
Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. Like the two previous books: a 500-page phantasmagoric fever dream that I consumed in a couple of days. If you’ll like this, you already know you’ll like it. If you haven’t read Gideon or Harrow and you try to read this, you’ll just be confused and probably annoyed. If you loved Gideon and Harrow, then you’re probably going to love Nona, which is narrated in part by an unknown character–unknown to us, unknown to herself and her companions–who has somehow landed in the body of a very familiar character. Part of the pleasure of this book is Nona’s voice, which is sweet and guileless and strangely gifted in the one thing that literally every other character has been lacking, which is emotional intelligence. Another part of the pleasure is remembering with a jolt that this affectionate childlike soul is riding around in the bony body of an unusually gifted necromancer. And a third part is that the interstitial chapters are narrated mostly by the God figure introduced in Harrow, and you finally learn how this necromantic empire came about, and while sometimes this kind of exposition is deadly dull in a fantasy tome–especially this far into a series–in this case I found it sort of touching.
On Writing by Steven King. My writing retreat friend lent this to me, I think with the suggestion that King’s hyperproduction of memorable stories might make a good counterweight to my slow, all-vibe-no-plot style of writing. About half the book is autobiography, arranged in a way that I didn’t expect–lots of very short vignettes. It made for crisp, breezy reading, and it was very interesting to learn about King’s early life and all the things that made him want to be a writer. I haven’t read any of his books, but I have seen Carrie–and Carrie was King’s third attempt at a novel but the first one he sold, and a runaway bestseller that made it possible for him to focus on writing while raising a young family. It was admittedly cool to learn how Carrie came about from the sheer circumstantial confluence of some images that struck him while he struggled to balance odd jobs with writing and life.
The rest of the book is more about his writing process and what writerly tools he finds important, and while this was interesting too, it’s definitely not a set of tools that would work for everyone. (He’s the first to say so, actually.) My biggest takeaways were that King himself doesn’t know what will be successful and what won’t; he writes so much and so consistently that naturally some of his work takes off while others don’t.
Saturnalia by Stephanie Feldman. A slim, spooky novel perfect for October, although it takes place on the longest night of the year in December. The world of this novel is like ours but a little bit worse–a slighly more advanced stage of climate crisis, a slightly more advanced degree of capitalist exploitation–and in this world, both class stratification and carnivalesque disruption have intensified. There are well-moneyed, well-connected social clubs like the Krewes of Mardi Gras, with lavish masked balls and arcane screts; then there’s the narrator, who barely ekes a living telling fortunes. Also, monsters are real. There’s a lot going on, and it’s fun to see one wild night of action unfold in Philadelphia landmarks I know and love.
The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker. This is a relatively recent release, but I still regret that I put off reading it as long as I did, and missing an in-person event with the author in my own city. Walker’s Dietland was hugely important to me–a major turning point in my relationship to diet culture and my body. So, expectations were high and also I could not figure out what the book was about from the title or description. So, I put it off.
Don’t worry about all that. This book is not trying to shock you or rewire your mind, like Calliope House of Dietland (book or TV adaptation). It is simply a good read, or rather several good reads layered up and braided together in a highly satisfying story: a deliciously spooky tale inspired by the Winchester House hauntings, a dreamy and wistful tale of sisters who died too young (a bit Virgin Suicides), and a Künstlerroman (the story of becoming an artist) alongside the rule-breaking women artists of the mid-20th century. The fashion and food is stylishly and appetizingly described. The sisters, despite there being so many of them, are unique and recognizable. I stayed up too late finishing this brick of a book and loved it.
Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks. This is a very weird college of a book that took me some time to get into, but then I didn’t want to put it down. Margaret’s teen years are presented through a medley of YA tropes I loved as a teen, music I couldn’t get enough of in the 90s, and all the poisonous cultural messaging I swallowed along with it. There’s homage to the Babysitter’s Club, girl detectives, supernatural mysteries like Bruce Coville’s Nina Tanleven series, gross-out Nickelodeon shows, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Girl Interrupted, and so on. And there’s a painful story buried in all that nostalgia: the disembodiment of investing a great deal of time and energy and pain into being a 90s girl–into being the best 90s girl, which is a terribly contradictory, narratively incoherent category to try to fit into even if “girl” does more or less match your gender identity.
For Publishers Weekly, I read Happily: A Personal History-with Fairy Tales by Sabrina Orah Mark and Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet by Alice Robb. You can read the reviews I collaborated on for Still Pictures and Happily.
Some poems and short prose I liked:
Il Nocciolo De Pesca by Anna Farro Henderson
The Goldfish in the Pond at the Community Garden by Kate Doyle
Sex Without Love by Sharon Olds
Anxiety Checks Her Phone Again by K.A. Hays
A list of video games and tabletop games with environmental themes, compiled by some members of the eco-fiction community Rewilding Our Stories during and after our Flights of Foundry event last April.
Interview with a music scholar that explores different ways music has been used to cause harm, control public spaces, and other surprising applications.
For what it’s worth, T. S. Eliot’s moody imagery and memorable lines were among the first poetry I fell in love with as a teen. Folks acquainted with my literary tastes know that I still refer to clunky multiple-POV fiction as “doing the police in different voices,” nodding to the title of an earlier draft of “The Waste Land.” And so I never get tired of the story of Ezra Pound (a better editor than he was a poet) ruthlessly cutting down this poem. This review references that story and contextualizes some of the others we know about Eliot (a better poet than he was a person): Eliot the fuckboy, Eliot the antisemitic.
I’ve been following the delightful Twitter account @whatsylviaate, and keep wanting to send tweets to friends. As a person who has a lightboard with the words DRINK WATER on display:
But there’s also a really lovely article about the tweets, and the experience of revisiting Plath’s diaries during the lockdown.
Speaking of water…. I appreciated this dip into the beverage industry from Dirt. It flits over beverages both alcoholic and non, but most of my forays into the world of Interesting Beverages were during my periods of pandemic sobriety. I didn’t want to drink alcohol but I did want to drink something special… which is how I ended up trying a can of sparkling water called Liquid Death as well as a wide range of terrible-tasting seltzers and sodas marketed to sober and sober-curious consumers.
And speaking of Dirt, I appreciated this excoriation of the terrible gray palette that dominates contemporary real estate, especially for rentals.
Really, really thrilled that Robin Wall Kimmerer was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass was absolutely transformative for me as a budding environmentalist. Here’s an evocative long essay from a few years ago that gets across what makes her work so vital: she moves in and out of scenes of botany, indigenous medicine and culture, pedagogy, theological/philosophical ideas like animism, and of course environmentalism.
There is a sort of genre of personal essay that is an inventory of one’s own body; an exercise in description, making the body come alive on the page. It’s not a genre that generally appeals to me, but I was curious about one by 83-year-old Sandra Butler, and then fell in love at the very end when she explains that she spent her vivacious middle-aged years teaching women to do exactly this kind of self-exploration. It’s an artifact of 2nd wave feminism I’ve only ever read about, the consciousness-raising circles, and it was unexpectedly moving to see this in the context of an older woman shaking off anti-aging advertisements and seeking the reality of her own body.
I am obsessed with this series of newsletters about Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman, two actors who became famous as children and have turned out some of the most iconic movies of the last few decades–which happen to coincide with the decades I have also been growing up and trying to figure out my relationship to girlhood and womanhood. The author is Emily VanDerWerff, whose TV and film writing I have long admired, and whose analysis of Kirsten’s and Natalie’s roles (as well as their celebrity images) is inflected with a bit of melancholy or longing, since she was attempting to live as cismale during most of their stardom. Many of the newsletters are subscriber-only, but the Kirsten and Natalie series is free.
Sometimes we still have summery weather in October, but this month was chilly and autumnal and lovely. The foliage was already looking gorgeous when I went with another friend to see my college BFF in Jekyll and Hyde the musical, which is campy good fun, and we laughed ourselves silly over wine and tarot cards until late in the night. I watched Hocus Pocus 2 with friends online. In the final week of the month, I went to both a wedding and a memorial; perhaps surprisingly, both were full of laughter and warm hugs with cherished friends amid the autumnal foliage in two of one of Philadelphia’s magical parks. My gentleman friend and I put together some Halloween costumes by thrifting and raiding my closet, and went to a Halloween party full of graduate students dressed as an evil queen and a slutty wizard. We also went to a spooky reading, and then ended up getting drinks afterward with the authors, laying claim to a 12-top in the middle of Passyunk Avenue and talking about books as dusk gathered.
The new fall term started, and I am TAing for one of my favorite online creative writing classes. I also did a free workshop for Blue Stoop, Philly’s literary community organization. You can watch it on YouTube.
This was a month with many moments that I want to preserve, in the way that my friend’s wedding bouquet will be preserved through the sagacious arts of a woman we both learned yoga from. Winter so often brings a dulling of pleasure, for me; let me not forget what it felt like to amble along the river as autumn leaves fluttered down in the golden late afternoon sunshine, or to stroll home on a crisp evening with a festival feeling in the streets, or to hug. I’ve hugged so many people lately.