Reading Roundup: November 2022

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. This was the book club selection chosen by Rewilding our Stories several months ago, but it had also just won a Hugo Award, so the library holds list was lengthy. I finally picked up a copy at the spooky bookstore reading and I’m so glad. This book is a DELIGHT. Short, fast-paced, imaginative, and so surprisingly cozy. Yes, cozy ecofiction! This book takes place in a world where humanity has divested of our dependence on fossil fuels, synthetic materials, and machine industry, and have reverted to an agrarian and craft-based economy. And it is a gorgeous world.
One critique that comes up with solarpunk and hopepunk is that, if you envision a better future, then where’s the conflict? This book proposes: we’re humans, we’re always going to have inner conflict. Our main character becomes a tea monk and travels from village to village in a painted cart, serving tea and listening to everyone’s troubles. The tea monk too is fairly conflicted, pressed to explore unfamiliar paths for reasons they can’t quite articulate to themself.

The sequel, A Prayer for the Crown-shy by Becky Chambers, came in much faster to the library. This novella continues the adventures of Dex (now in search of a new purpose other than being a tea monk) and the friend they made in book 1, but it mostly serves as a companion to the first book: we get to see a little more about this world, how money works, how relationships work, and so forth.

True Biz by Sara Nović. I don’t usually pick up books from the bestseller shelf at my university library because they need to be returned in 30 days, but I needn’t have worried; I couldn’t put it down. This is a readable, page-turning story of teens figuring their shit out at a school for the Deaf, and their headmistress who is trying to figure out same while (relatably) stepping in to teach a history class in addition to her other responsibilities. The chapters alternate POV characters–comfortably, without jarring gimmicks to differentiate them–and are intercut by handouts from the headmistress’s remedial Deaf history class, which helps orient uninformed hearing folks like myself. Their braided stories are bookended by a plot involving anarchism and radical action, which doesn’t quite feel earned by the end–but that didn’t stop me from devouring this novel in a couple of days and really enjoying the experience. It felt to me a little like when I finally complete the main quest of a video game after spending most of my play chasing sidequests and making friends with NPCs; it’s those charismatic relationships that compel me to recommend the title, not the rushed climax.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik is the third book in the Scholomance series, and just as with the first and second, I devoured it like a maw-mouth. This sequel has a lot less of what made the first two whip-fast and fun (namely, life inside the Scholomance) and a lot more exposition and retconning which made it feel bloated and predictable at times, but I am invested in these characters and I flew through it anyway.
Oddly enough: this book is a climate change allegory? I wouldn’t say the first two are, but here there are unmistakeable allusions to carbon footprints and recycling. All fiction is ecofiction these days!
Also, I can’t believe I read the entirety of this trilogy in 2022. It feels as through it’s lived inside me for a little longer than that.

Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. All I can think of to describe this book is a pile of admiring adjectives: beautiful, mysterious, haunting, arresting, romantic in the sense of being drawn to the overwhelming power of storms or the ocean. It shimmers like abalone shell: in one light, a story of the unworldly saturation of grief that is specific to a long, slow decline; in another, a story of isolation, both imposed and existential; also, somehow, a spooky deep sea exploration story. I loved it.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. This novel pays exquisitely close attention to what freedoms were and were not available to a girl in 16th century Italy, particularly a girl moving from one wealthy family to another, particularly a girl with artistic and intellectual gifts that are sort of nurtured by her wealthy families but only up to a point. It builds tension quite successfully in establishing the relative freedoms and restrictions of a marriage–especially a marriage to a powerful man who needs an heir–and then arguably deflates its own tension by carving out an alternative history at a key turning point. It’s not that I need historical fiction to be perfectly historically accurate, or that I need female characters to suffer in particular ways, but this sidestep out of the historical narrative felt a bit unearned. But I’m not that mad about it…. Sometimes you just want a glittering, bejeweled story about dukes and duchesses, and I still really enjoyed the lavish descriptions of art, architecture, fashion, and Italian countryside.

The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. As you all know, I love Sofia Samatar’s fantasy novels and will recommend them to anyone who wants to lose themselves in beautiful language as well as a mysterious, magic-touched world. The White Mosque is memoir, describe Samatar’s journey (pilgrimage?) to retrace the steps of a group of 19th-century Mennonites who fled persecution in Russia and tried to meet the second coming of Christ in Uzbekistan. It is beautiful, glittering with sensory details, capably conjuring an unfamiliar world as her fantasy novels do. But what makes this book so dazzling is the fine, nuanced lens it takes to all the questions raised by such a pilgrimage: what it means to be a religious, what it means to believe in an impending apocalypse, what it means to be proud and adventurous in a religion that values plainness and humility; what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, what it means to be hospitable, what it means to depend on others; what it means to be a Mennonite and a writer, what it means to be a member of a nonwhite majority in a white-coded religion; why we write, why the Mennonite refugees wrote, how we honor or abuse the stories of those who came before by looking for ourselves them. It’s so smart and gorgeous. I’ve read a whole lot of memoir this year but nothing I admired so much as this.

For Publishers Weekly, I read Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock, and Loving Lou Reed by Simon Doonan. You can read the review I collaborated on for Don’t Think, Dear.

Elsewhere

On Culture Study, a look at gamification: How Did We Get So Obsessed with Streaks?

On Cold-Weather Vegetables:

The vegetables of summer are easy to love, as it is easy to find young men and women beautiful, to promise commitment before it has been tested, to be happy beneath a cloudless sky. I’m still not sure it’s natural to prefer what’s difficult and unwieldy, to feel affection warts-and-all. But the world is older and slower and more patient than we ever will be.

Oh gosh, I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to embed tweets. It’s a shame–I like having the opportunity to click through and see the conversation, look for context, and so forth. In any case this is a brutal parody of how some NYT writers (and writers generally) write about NYC as the center of the world.

What to say about Twitter? I’m still on it, for now. I haven’t picked up any of the hot new platforms because I haven’t had time to research and try them out. I have been feeling a sort of grief for the particular ways Twitter has served me: connecting me with food scholars when I was a food scholar, with folks from The Toast commentariat when The Toast closed its doors, and with literary magazines and opportunities as I find my way as a creative writer. I feel worried wondering how the literary world in particular will manage publicity and discoverability without it. I have also been feeling a deranged glee watching how very, very badly the transition of power has been handled.
I haven’t read any linkable articles that quite capture the complexities of this sinking ship. The best commentary I’ve read about the decline of Twitter…. have been tweets.

Minutiae

The first weekend in November was balmy and humid. I took a train out and spent a lovely afternoon in New Hope with two of my writing group friends, drawing tarot cards and dreaming and making each other laugh. I spent the second weekend of November in New Jersey with my mom, my college BFF, and his family. We cooked lavish meals, played cards, and went to an odd little museum that features fossils, minerals, and an enormous collection of musical automata. The third weekend of November was tree planting weekend: I helped a multilingual group of moms and teachers plant six trees behind their grade school, and led a small crew to plant sidewalk trees in southwest Philly. It was cold and windy all weekend; we layered up and kept our hands warm with coffee and cocoa. The fourth weekend, of course, was a holiday; I made no plans except to read, to decorate my home, and to keep up with grading. I did cook dinner with friends and went to see a tiny exhibition featuring artifacts of climate science from the 18th century to the present. In ballet, we began rehearsing choreography for our holiday party.

The course I am TAing for continued in earnest this month, and I had to learn how to balance responding to student work and occasionally designing and leading a workshop with my book reviews, my day job, my hobbies, and my life. It was not easy. But I loved chatting with these students in class and on discussion boards. The students who take these classes tend to form very generous, supportive cohorts, and to approach the readings with curiosity and open-mindedness. It is a pleasure to work with them.

I coped with my busy schedule by burying myself in books between obligations–at meals, in the bath, before bed. It got cold enough for me to realize how poorly the second floor of my still-new-to-me home is insulated, so I hung curtains and put electric blankets in my bed and the cat’s bed. It began getting dark before 5 and I had to remember how to enjoy the pleasures of late afternoon nighttime, the strangely cozy closeness of seeing the sun completely set before dinner. On one of the early dusks I sat on a friend’s stoop watching the night breeze stir up papery leaves, and I remember thinking “there is still so much night left.”

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