Reading Roundup: December 2022

Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet broke the reading drought I got caught in at the beginning of the month. It is a slim book, deceptively approachable, easy to breeze through… even as the scenarios in each short chapter skillfully cultivate a creeping sense of unease. There is so much that is lovely and surprising about the world Gil finds himself in, having trekked by foot to Arizona and taken residence in a familiar yet eccentric slice of suburbia; there is also a simmering of potential violence and the general anxiety of changing seasons and diminishing species, but the stakes in the foreground remain low. This book reminded me of Weather by Jenny Offill, which I also loved; I have less in common with emotionally subdued Gil, who feels burdened by his inherited wealth, but there’s nevertheless something comforting and bleakly optimistic (?) about a well-meaning protagonist who fumbles from one understated fragment to the next, looking for meaning in a troubled world.

The Hero of this Book by Elizabeth McCracken. I was found this elegiac not-a-memoir really touching. I think, under other circumstances, I might feel aggrieved by the author’s prevarications about autobiography, and what does or not make it distinct from fiction. Since I spent 2022 reading a small hill of memoir, however–and specifically a lot of memoir authored by people who typically write fiction or poetry or who did not previously write much at all, but found themselves preoccupied with their life stories during lockdown–I found it refreshing to see a talented author gesture at memoir conventions, either to skirt them or to resignedly fulfill them.

Dating Dr. Dil by Nisha Sharma was recommended to me at a party a few months ago, but it took a long time for the hold to come in–she’s a popular author around these parts! Romance isn’t my wheelhouse, but I enjoyed this confection of a novel: it’s got enemies to lovers, secret dating, and some steamy scenes that made me blush on the plane where I read most of it.
I did not realize until I read the acknowledgments that it was meant to be a modernization of Taming of the Shrew. That’s fine; Taming cannot be recognizably translated into a light-hearted romance.

Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis by Annie Proulx. If there are five stages of climate grief, much of the literary fiction written about climate is stuck in the depression phase–doomer lit, it’s called. I’m always seeking novels that deal more in acceptance; I’ll take bargaining too, that can be interesting. This book is possibly the first I’ve read–fiction or nonfiction–written in the anger phase. There are four long essays that explore the different types of wetlands found throughout the world. They are informative and interesting–I took notes–but they are also seething. Even in a brief moment of hope, describing the Great Fen Project to rebuild the wetlands of East Anglia, she explicitly reminds herself to consider this tiny project in the global context of melting permafrost and raging wildfires. Which… yes, fair point. Accurate and possibly galvanizing for the right reader. Me, I can’t get a lot of mileage out of the anger phrase. I need to work, I need solutions. But I will making careful notes on these densely researched essays.

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshvegh. I read the novel with a sort of clinical fascination–there are passages of great beauty and longing and magic in and around a relentless march of filth and cruelty, and I found myself wanting to understand how it worked. Can a passage be gross and elegant at the same time? How? Why write this way? Why read it? I didn’t hate this book. Neither did Andrea Long Chu, whose careful and attentive reading ended up on Lit Hub’s Most Scathing Reviews of 2022. Chu had some of the same questions I had–what are we doing here?–but equipped herself to answer them by looking closely at how the scenes of cruelty and violence and scatological pleasure functioned in this book, and comparing that to Mossvegh’s other novels… including My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I enjoyed but categorized as a “guilty pleasure” for reasons I had trouble articulating. Reading the review helped me contextualize and understand my conflicted pleasure and revulsion as I read either book.
Side note: when that list of scathing reviews dropped, I saw some pushback on Twitter–why sink another author’s ship, asked one writer I follow. Personally, I love a good scathing review, and Chu writes some of the best: she is rigorous and thorough in her reading, building a solid, well-informed, and insightful thesis that should be illuminating even if you don’t agree with her conclusions.

I had a bit of book block early in the month. I picked up The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson but gave it back to the library without getting very far in; it didn’t hold my interest, but I struggle to pinpoint why, so perhaps it’s me. I breezed through a couple of academic books I’d borrowed from the university library and needed to return by end of term. I picked up The Origins of Wizards, Witches and Fairies by Simon Webb from the new book shelf because I thought it would be fun to read an academic treatment of this fantasy topic. And maybe it would be! But this book lacks the depth and methodology of folklore scholarship–there are only about two pages of bibliography in the back, and I didn’t see any sources cited as I paged through–and, unfortunately, lacks the charm and insight that would make a good general audience treatment of the subject. Suspicious, I looked up the author and learned that his previous works cover subjects like white slavery and suffragrette [sic] terrorists. This is one to avoid.

A poem I loved:
As It’s Rude to Not Partake by Jessica Lee

Elsewhere

Note: I’m not sure why some of the links aren’t showing up in my last few blog posts–they are there, just not underlined. If something sounds like a link (e.g. “this Culture Study newsletter”) try hovering over it.

Feeling a little called-out by this Culture Study newsletter about how and why we try game ourselves ourselves into reading more. Gently called out, I mean–it’s really about identifying why you want to read, not why you should, and finding ways that work for you. I still think this monthly round-up works for me. Sometimes I feel a little pressured to read more books in a month than I do, or embarrassed when I don’t. But mostly I think it helps me to have this structure to list and reflect on what I’ve read.

I was a little disappointed in myself for watching The White Lotus season 2. The first one was perfectly standard issue Rich White People Problems in prestige drama trappings. I don’t think it is particularly smart or biting social commentary; it’s just that I love a show with visibly expensive fashion and set design, so RWPP shows get me every time (c.f. The Undoing). White Lotus at least had the benefit of some surprising character interactions and some star turns, like Molly Shannon dropping in for a few episodes to show everyone how satire is really done in season 1.
But White Lotus season 2 was somehow more gripping for me, even though it wasn’t better in any measurable way, and I think this Vox article does a fine job of explaining why. The pleasure in the show is watching the world’s luckiest people choose unhappiness, ignorance, and self-destruction even amidst the beauty and drama of Sicily. In the first episode, you learn that someone has died, and I had no idea until the end who it would be or by whose hand. The pleasure is not in the suspense, though; it’s in watching so many different moneyed and money-aspiring characters corner themselves in situations where they really conceivably could come bobbing to the ocean surface as an unidentified body in episode 1.

And, well, the fashion is really fun. Here’s a closer look at the costume design for a few of the characters.

Okay, one more: Staying at a White Lotus Resort or Getting a PhD in English?

Here’s one reason I’m still on Twitter. I somehow came across a thread by someone I don’t even follow, who stumbled across the Cape Fear Serpentarium and recounted an absolutely surreal experience there. Then someone shared this Oxford American article about the charismatic weirdo who owned and maintained the venomous snake collection. And THEN someone else casually added that this selfsame owner had been murdered by his wife, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity. If Twitter ever finishes imploding I will miss these rabbitholes.

“Dystopian Dining” reminded me of my old food blog post about food in dystopian futures.

Love a good Dingus of the Week, and this one is a doozy: a grown man tries to taunt a teenage girl, she claps back, he gets so flustered that he gets himself arrested for the sex trafficking charge he’d been trying to evade. I appreciate that Lyz Lenz connects this exchange to ways environmentalism and climate denialism are gendered in our present culture.

If you want to unwrap a veritable advent calendar of reading recommendations, visit this landing page for A Year in Reading at The Millions and click on your favorite authors to see what they read this year.

Minutiae

At the beginning of the month my mail-order prescription went astray, so I tried to get by on half-pills for a few days. Those were foggy, lost days. I can’t even remember how I spent them. At one point, frustrated that I couldn’t get in touch with my endocrinologist for a short-term prescription, I nabbed some generic levathyroxine from a neighbor on my Buy Nothing Facebook group. I took one–not quite enough, but better than nothing–and it reminded me of the time I took my aunt’s thyroid pills after her death; surreal and strangely intimate to swallow medicine prescribed for someone else’s body, with someone else’s name on the bottle.

My ballet studio held our annual holiday party. Last year I danced my butt off in three routines, including pre-pointe; this year I had dialed my dance practice down to accommodate my other obligations, so I had less to do but I did dance front and center for the intermediate choreo. The vibes were so good: I felt happy and comfortable going through the steps, and I loved sipping champagne and chatting with my classmates for an hour after. We are all so different–all ages, all different backgrounds, lots of different body types and reasons for being there–and yet here we all are, week after week, working hard.

I went home for Christmas for the first time in a few years. Sometimes I get a balmy short-sleeved holiday in my hometown, but with the winter storm that passed through half the country, it was cold and the pipes kept freezing. My luggage got delayed on the way down. Half my family tested positive for covid two days in, so we spent the rest of the time masking and distancing. But for a few days we had a lovely, laughing time together, and I am so glad I went. I had decided to plan a tiny dinner for New Year’s Eve, just a manageable number of friends who communicate well about risk mitigation. I ended up canceling it due to the possible covid exposure, so we had a virtual watch party for Glass Onion instead. (It is SO good and SO fun.)

But otherwise, given that strange liminal space without work between holidays, the month ended as it began: foggy, lost days where I hardly know how I passed the time. And now it is a new year.

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