They’re Going to Love You by Meg Howry. I don’t seek them out intentionally, but I’ve read a few books recently (fiction and nonfiction) that make a study of the glamorous, competitive, physically and emotionally rigorous world of prestige ballet. But this a book I would actually recommend. It’s beautifully written, with a compelling narrator who convincingly embodies both her older voice (in her 40s, still nursing the heartbreaks of her youth but also making a life and career of her own) and her younger selves, in love with the arts and desperate to please. Her world feels lived-in and full; her characters feel distinct and round and relatable in their search for ways to live a creative, beautiful life.
I have only one complaint, and because I’m seeing it as a sort of trend in new fiction, I’m gonna say it: not every book needs to have a secret that gets revealed two hundred pages in. That does work sometimes: for example, if the secret is secret from the narrator, or if the narrator is trying to suppress their own knowledge of the secret; it could work if the narrator is keeping a secret from most of the other characters, maybe. It doesn’t work if the secret is only secret to the reader. The narrator of this book is grappling with the weight of some unnamed sin; she thinks about it constantly and it affects some of her biggest decisions in the book. Withholding information about what this is doesn’t build suspense, it just prevents me from being emotionally invested in her burden. Fortunately, this book had so much else going on that I still loved the journey.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder). This is an astonishing book with a Big Idea rendered in timeless, fairytale-like prose. The island town could be almost anywhere, in any era; the terrifying Memory Police could represent almost anything–in fact, I was convinced that the book was written as some kind of response to internet culture, because so many of the memories that disappear are of beautiful, tactile things, but then I saw that the original language novel was published in 1994! The town is terrorized by a succession of things “disappearing,” an occurrence that is slightly supernatural–typically, the narrator wakes up already knowing something has disappeared–but reinforced by state and individual actions, as the disappeared things are often still physically very present and have to be collected and destroyed by the townsfolk and the Memory Police. This results in some of the book’s most beautiful, melancholy scenes: the river awash in petals torn from the roses disappeared from the community garden; fruit falling all at once and rotting beneath a blanket of snow; fires blazing in the town library while residents reluctantly chuck their household books into the flames. But once something is gone, it’s gone–it becomes hard to even remember or say the names of what has been lost, even apart from the fear that the Memory Police would find and confiscate any evidence that the memory remains. The book reminded me a little of Piranesi: the premise is a self-contained, tightly imagined conceit that could plausibly hold many interpretations, but it’s those scenes of townsfolk throwing out their flowers, their photographs, and their books that will haunt me.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. A sweet confection of a space opera centering around an arranged marriage at a delicate moment for one Space Monarchy’s position within a larger, mysterious Galactic Empire. The palace intrigues reminded me of both A Memory Called Empire and The Collapsing Empire, although this book breezier and funnier than Memory and so much gayer than Collapsing.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shatak. It took me some time to get into this novel, because the writing is not to my taste–or perhaps the issue is that it doesn’t quite match the content, which is sweeping and intergenerational and contains beautiful ideas and images, but not especially beautiful language. For example, every other chapter is narrated in first person by a didactic, occasionally fretful, seemingly omniscient fig tree–a bold choice that easily veers into cartoonish or comic. But I did learn a lot from the fig tree’s disquisitions of plant and animal life on Cyprus, as well as Cyprus political history and partitioning, and I kept turning pages to learn more about the doomed romance that felt lived-in and human in addition to its narrative role of dramatizing the division of the island.
Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo. I enjoyed the first book in this series so much that I knew I would devour the second like a hellbeast when my hold came in. And this installment remains spooky, page-turning fun: there’s ghosts! vampires! demons! Also people being assholes on an Ivy League campus! Problematic college history! Lots of magical items and spells! Delightful.
Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet by Chelsea Wald. Sanitation is essential for public health as well as environmental health—but while many of us take our facilities for granted, less than half the global population has access to safe waste management. Pipe Dreams is an engaging and informative look at the past, present, and future of toilets. You’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know about sewage science, and what sustainable directions tomorrow’s toilets may take!
For Publishers Weekly, I read Thinning Blood: A Memoir of Family, Myth, and Identity by Leah Myers. You can read reviews I collaborated on for What Looks Like Bravery and Orphan Bachelors.
Every now and then JP Brammer will drop a banger of a list that is, by definition, deeply subjective, and yet deeply relatable (or aspirational?) because he has exquisite taste. Things I Do Not Like Hearing either, as it happens: rock star (red flag!), *whispering* on Twitter, don’t yuck someone else’s yum (gross!).
Apparently people are submitting AI-generated stories to magazines like Clarkesworld? This seems like such an obviously bad idea that I cannot imagine the purpose, but for heaven’s sake don’t do it? Editors are human, clogging the pipes with machine-generated stories is just going to make everything worse for everyone involved?
While there is a ton of things wrong with this, the biggest problem is that ChatGPT learns how to write by scanning millions of pages of existing text. So, the software is just correcting other people’s books and plagiarising them. The process is made easy by Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing arm which is designed to make it easier to self publish titles.
I’ve long stopped trying to track JCO’s Twitter trollery, but I’m glad she is a trans ally, and I appreciate Jude Doyle’s take on her arc toward justice: “If one 84-year-old cis white shitposting novelist can become less transphobic on Twitter, then we are all endowed with the capacity for growth and change.”
What is February, anyway? For this short month, I was just about able to balance work, school, volunteerism, and fun. I worked another shift at Bottle Underground and managed the watershed newsletter and read submissions for a journal. I worked on a podcast about Hurricane Ike for my Introduction to Disaster Management class. I went to a fundraiser for a theater, and danced to a ukulele cover of Portishead’s Glorybox. I saw a musical improv show. I made several new-to-me recipes, like horseradish pesto with cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds. My television is still not consistently showing color, but that’s been for the best; instead, I read. When the color worked, I caught up on Shrinking (lovely), Abbott Elementary (simply the best), and Not Dead Yet (fine).
I had one of my micros nominated for the Best Microfiction 2023 anthology. I didn’t make the final cut, but it was thrilling to be nominated. I was invited by one of my former creative writing teachers to visit her classroom; we talked about my braided essay “The Untimely Collaborators,” but also about revision generally and forming a writing community and making time for writing. It is nice to be reminded that I don’t have to meet some arbitrary benchmark of words per week or pieces published per year; I am still a writer.