Reading Roundup: April 2023

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker. I have a real soft spot for 20th-century stories about wayward, bookish, pagan-hearted girls: Merrikat from We Used to Live in the Castle, Cassandra from I Capture the Castle. Come to think of it, the castle is probably a key element of my love for these stories: isolated, antiquated, full of old books and clothes and stray animals for a friendless young girl to discover. O Caledonia‘s Janet is dead when the novel opens, but the story of her coming of age is brimming with life: Janet loves animals more than people (including her many siblings) and rejects the social mores and expectations her exasperated parents try to saddle her with. The story of her short, lonely life is unexpectedly packed with pleasures: sublime natural beauty in north Scotland, tender animal companionship, rich and tactile memories of midcentury food, clothes, and technology.

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty. This novel is a doorstop, like the books of the author’s Daevabad trilogy–but it is every bit as fast-paced and packed with adventure as the series, so I stayed up too late reading it and devoured it in just a few days. It’s everything you loved about City of Brass–thief with a heart of gold, no-good magical boyfriend (husband, in this case), high stakes magical crisis, lots of gorgeous middle East settings, history, and lore–but also pirates and a lot more cursing. The frame story is a bit ham-handed, but well-meaning, and the no-nonsense middle-aged pirate captain al-Sirafi makes for a compelling narrator between the frames.

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley. This novel is darkly funny. It’s not exactly my jam, and I ended up skimming the back half so that I could return it to the library, since I wasn’t enthralled enough to stay up late reading. But I was invested enough to want to see how it all played out, so there’s that.

You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith. It’s been a strange month for divorce memoirs and fiction–I also reread Dept of Speculation and What We Lose for homework, and loved them both all over again. You Could Make This Place Beautiful shares a fragmented style with those novels, as well as the highs and lows of parenting while dealing with heartbreak and/or betrayal. But as painful and wrenching as those novels could be, You Could Make This Place Beautiful is not fiction, and it is in some ways rawer and messier, even as it seeks comfort in the repeated iterations of an invented stage play, of looking for oneself with lanterns, of an unanswerable question, and other motifs. I didn’t expect to finish another book in this busy month, but once I picked it up, I kept coming back to it.

For my class I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which quite a few folks have recommended to me, and I see why–it’s a fragmented essay (my jam), dense with allusions to art and music and literature and philosophy, weaving all these ideas about blue into a personal story of heartbreak. I didn’t love it, to my surprise, but I will probably still be thinking about it years from now. I read parts of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style for the first time: it’s a short story about a man who gets into an argument on a bus, retold in a hundred different ways. I always assumed this would be tedious but it’s delightful; the author is having so much fun with style and genre! Even better: 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden, which does the same thing but in graphic novel form, and I found it particularly interesting because it forced me to think about visual storytelling–for example, how do you convey the passage of time or movement through space in a one-panel comic versus three panels versus thirty panels. I read an excerpt of Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell, in which every sentence is a question; this was a little bit tedious to read, except that when I could command myself to focus, the individual questions often contained astonishing insights and gorgeous language.

For Publishers Weekly, I read Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy by Joe Sexton, The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel, and Nobody Needs to Know by Pidgeon Pagonis. You can read reviews I collaborated on for Please Wait by the Coatroom and The Art Thief.

Some short poems and prose I liked:
I need a poem by Kyla Jamieson
U.S. Threat Forecast by Andrea Marcusa


In these last few months of reading chapbooks and short story submissions, I’ve been really struck by how many stories end too abruptly–they make a sharp turn that doesn’t make sense, or they end right as another, possibly more interesting story is beginning, or they don’t so much end as stop. It’s humbling, because obviously I struggle with endings too! So I loved this essay that offers a taxonomy of different types of endings.

Jena Friedman asks a bunch of male comedians (including Jon Stewart and Fred Armisen) questions that she and her fellow female comedians have been asked. The results are pretty amazing. The men have no idea how to respond. Sometimes they make jokes, sometimes they answer the way they think a woman would, sometimes they answer seriously, it’s all over the map–and artfully reveals how nonsensical the double standards are.

It’s Not Therapy’s Fault That Your Friends Are Jerks

This is lovely: Meet the painter behind the iconic covers for ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’

More thoughts on AI!
German Photographer Refuses Award for His AI “Photo”
For fun: I’m ChatGPT, and for the Love of God, Please Don’t Make Me Do Any More Copywriting


This month it was alternately cold and rainy or hot and sunny. I went to an abandoned reservoir that has given rise to a sort of urban ecosystem, mostly phragmites and junk trees but also the gradual cultivation of native meadows. I planted some city trees on Earth Day; one of them, a baby cherry tree, was christened Rainbow Hugs by the children who lived nearby. I visited the Asian food market in my favorite park and ate fried food and walked the flooded paths; with the lakes spilling over and reflecting the clouds, it looked like there was twice as much sky as usual.

I celebrated my 5-year workiversary with lunch on campus–unusual to be on campus with my coworkers, but we were doing photo shoots, which always feels like a holiday anyway. I took care of so many cats while their owners were away. I met up with some of my long-time Philly friends while one was visiting town; we marveled that our friendships are nearly old enough to vote.

April means Flights of Foundry, and I once again had the opportunity to moderate some panel discussions, which I love doing. I went to the orchestra with my gentleman; the program was a new composition about the environment and grief, Vespers of the Blessed Earth, followed by The Rite of Spring. I did keep my promise to read a prose poem every day in April. I cannot say whether I am the better for it.


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