Reading Roundup: March 2023

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. I inhaled it. Mesmerizing. Whatever I thought was going to happen, something else happened. And I enjoyed the creeping dread created by having such a wounded and self-preserving unreliable narrator.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I absolutely loved Weather by the same author, so when this book came up on my course syllabus, I happily brought my copy on the train and settled in for some good writing. This is a book of a different stripe. In Weather, the fragmented approach–lots of little vignettes–is useful in creating a collage of contemporary life that manages to capture a hint of a broad-sweeping view in its small-scale facets. In Dept, the subject is a foundering marriage; the narrator is exhausted from parenting and trying to maintain a creative life while earning a living. The fragments feel like a fracturing reality, glitchy from lack of sleep. It is devastating. I inhaled it though. I was rooting for the couple to break up and needed to find out whether or not they did.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. Another novel in fragments, starting pensive but blossoming out into passion and grief. This book, too, has a lot to do with motherhood–as do a few of the short fragmented pieces we’ve been reading in my class, which makes me what to explore what it is about this style that seems well suited to exploring mother/daughter relationships, or what it is about being a mother or a daughter that draws one to a fragmented style.

Burning Roses by S. L. Huang. A short, odd novella combining several European fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Beauty and the Beast) with some Chinese folktales I am less familiar with. I appreciated the choice to begin with the legendary heroines late in their respective lives.

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé. I picked this up to review it for my watershed stewards newsletter. It opens with an inspiring scene of soil rehabilitation, as biologist Biklé and geologist Montgomery feed organic matter to the depleted urban soil in their yard and coax an abundant vegetable garden out of the new humus. That garden becomes a focal point in the two spheres of their book, which explores the ecological niche of beneficial microorganisms in healthy soil and in the human digestive tract. There is fair amount of technical information, but also a lot of great science history detailing the experiments that led to germ theory as well as the personal anecdata about the garden. Unfortunately, the half of the book dealing with gut microbiome has a tendency to veer into healthism, so it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend.

I started a new creative writing class, and the syllabus is amazing. So far I have read I Remember by Joe Brainard and several of the how-to stories from Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, with more to come next month.

For Publisher’s Weekly, I read Surrealists in New York: Atelier 17 and the Birth of Abstract Expressionism by Charles Darwent, Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrances by Kwame Alexander, and Please Wait by the Coatroom: Reconsidering Race and Identity in American Art by John Yau. You can read reviews I collaborated on for Thinning Blood, Surrealists in New York, and Why Fathers Cry at Night.

Here are some short stories and poems I liked:
Jesus Saves by Jae Nichelle
September by Nathaniel Perry
Against Poetry by Diane Seuss
Zelda Fitzgerald by Aria Aber


If Doctors Make the Worst Patients, Do Editors Make the Worst Authors?

As a reviewer whose review guidelines include a summary sentence that could be clipped for use on a book jacket or paperback, I was fascinated by this encyclopedic look at book blurbing–especially this bit.

During her tenure, former London Review of Books editor Mary-Kay Wilmers instituted a policy that any sentence in a review that could be used as a quote on a book was to be cut. When asked why, she answered: “Those are never good sentences.” David Foster Wallace shared Wilmers’s aversion to the language of blurbing. At a public reading in 2004, when questioned about the blurbs that adorn the jackets of his own novels, Wallace coined the term “blurbspeak,” which he defined as “a very special subdialect of English that’s partly hyperbole, but it’s also phrases that sound really good and are very compelling in an advertorial sense, but if you think about them, they’re literally meaningless.”

This is such an interesting case to contrast with the controversial revision of Roald Dahl’s books: Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s son opted to slightly revise her classic children’s book Catwings.

I didn’t realize this fascinating essay about disability tropes and sensitivity reads would also include a reference to the Dahl rewrites, but here we are.

So interesting! AI and the American Smile


This month. This month was a lot!

My gentleman had a birthday, so we baked spicy fox-shaped cookies and an elaborate medieval almond-based cake, and played a board game about birds with some friends. My college BFF’s daughter also had a birthday, so I took a train to help throw her party–which involved costumes, headshots, walk of fame stars, and theater games. I came home with a cold. I worked three events for a cultural institution. After one of them, an all-day affair, I hopped a bus to northwest Philly to attend the revival of a long-held tradition in my peer group: Thanksgiving in March. The next morning, I sleepily got on another train to see my college BFF in Peter and the Starcatcher, a delightful play with music that clearly both loved and poked fun at its source material. Perfect day, followed by a Kafkaesque nightmare of coming home by public transit on a Sunday night. Three days later I boarded yet another train to Virginia for the Festival of the Book, which was a dream from start to finish. I met Psyche Williams-Forson, a food scholar whose work informed my early dissertation reading, Sofia Samatar, who you know I love, and Ross Gay, who is as much a ray of sunshine as you’d expect. (“A delight,” he proclaimed upon seeing that someone had left a redbud branch onstage for him. He ate some of the buds to prove they are edible.) I had my tarot cards read by a witch. I caught the beginning of Nyle DiMarco’s book talk in a beautiful old theater filled with deaf teens, who applauded wildly by waving their hands. I rode a shuttle to a mountaintop summer camp and watched the sun set over Virginia while horror writers read excerpts of their work and anonymous spooky stories from the audience. It rained during one reading–an atmospheric pattering on the camp pavilion roof–but later the sky was as clear and black and starry as I’d ever seen.

This month I started my new class, as noted. I wrote a proposal for my watershed steward group to launch a blog. I started and struggled with a new writing project, about which I will reveal more at a later date. I watched Shrinking, which is lovely and tender, and played For the King, which is a fruitless little turn-based RPG which warns you that you’ll lose many times before you succeed (true).

In April, I hope to slow down and enjoy the seasonal transition–it was springtime in Virginia, but this last week in Philly still has a wintry bite. April is National Poetry Writing Month, so I am going to try to read one prose poem a day. Best laid plans, etc. etc.


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