february 2021

getting this one in under the wire

It’s felt like I’ve been reading less than usual this month, and yet the insane spreadsheet I keep track of my reading with suggests otherwise. It’s been a month of fragmented attention, but I still found plenty of things to keep my focus when I had it.

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recent reads

  • it’s the heart of Eurovision selection season, and since I can’t travel anywhere I’m doing it via cookbooks, apparently. I picked up Baltic: New & Old Recipes from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the library on a whim (Lithuania just selected their entry and Estonia’s in the process of picking theirs, so the region’s been on my mind). It hits the sweet spot of what I want from a regional cookbook - beautiful photography and writing about the region, but recipes that feel like I could work them into my regular rotation and not require 37 different things I can only get from the Russian market. Less in that sweet spot: Alpine Cooking, which had beautiful photos but was more about skiing than the cozy Austrian/Swiss winter cooking I wanted from it.

  • Midnight in Chernobyl is so good and so clearly thoroughly researched in its breakdown of how things happened, why they happened, and what happened as a result, and it’s compelling reading throughout.

  • It’s not a book, but Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay The Dolly Moment, looking into just why we all consider Dolly Parton cancel-proof, printed off to about 20 pages on my printer and it’s about what most of us have the attention span for anyways, so why not?

in progress

  • I’m working my way through a galley of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations, which was supposed to come out last October (because Halloween) and is now coming out in a few weeks (because of the various delays COVID and everyone needing to get all their last Trump books out before the election had on anything that wasn’t a Trump book). All of the stories are little fragments, 1-2 pages at the most, and it’s really diving into the breadth of what a “ghost” can be in interesting ways.

up ahead

  • Lyz Lenz and other writers/book people I follow on Twitter have all been hyping up Elon Green’s Last Call for months, and after being unable to get an advance copy for myself but loving a piece he wrote last year about the whiteness of true crime, I’m interested to see his take on the genre

  • Hanif Abdurraqib is one of my favorite writers on culture - his collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us was my first introduction to his work, and I loved how his work as a poet informs how he writes about music, and the wide spread of music he writes about. I also loved Go Ahead In The Rain, his book about music fandom and A Tribe Called Quest without being familiar with ATCQ’s musical output, so I’m willing to follow him wherever his muse leads. His next book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, is out at the end of the month and has this description, which sounds like the next logical extension of his work:

At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. "I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too," she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines--whether it's the twenty-seven seconds in "Gimme Shelter" in which Merry Clayton wails the words "rape, murder," a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt--has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib's own personal history of love, grief, and performance.

Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space--from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.

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january 2021

here we go again

This year is off to a good start, and I find myself clinging to the hope that it will continue to be a good year, because I am an optimist.

  • we have a new president

  • my Mystery Hunt team has finally won Hunt for the first time in 14 years, meaning we are now responsible for the content of next year’s hunt

  • it’s Eurovision national final season, which means I get to spend my Saturday afternoons watching Lithuanian television, amongst other programs

In all of these things, there is much work that needs to continue to happen, but for now: a moment of joy. Also for now? A moment of books.

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recent reads

  • I had a galley of Anna North’s Outlawed and then ended up picking up a hard copy from Book of the Month when they announced it as a January pick because it was such a nice brain vacation. It’s a western (a genre I don’t read a ton), but a progressive one, and there’s shades of True Grit in there. I’d totally welcome a second book in its world.

  • George Saunders is probably my favorite living author, and I’m willing to follow whatever road he wants to take after Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo. It turns out that’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an attempt to turn the class he’s been teaching at Syracuse on reading short stories by Russian authors into book form. I haven’t done a ton of reading of Chekov, Tolstoy, etc., and it was nice having a little George Saunders on my shoulder while I did, showing me what the authors were doing and making sure I caught it. The interludes between stories on what makes for compelling writing are also lovely.

  • There’s a stack of books in my TBR pile that are just Nicole Cliffe Kept Talking About This Book On Twitter, and Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was an excellent pick from that pile. This book came out in the 90s and talks about how messed up the world of gymnastics and figure skating is for its athletes and their parents, and how horrible the coaching culture is, and we’re still not heeding its lessons. Highly recommended.

in progress

  • A member of my book club raved about Black Futures, the first pick of Roxane Gay’s new newsletter/book club The Audacity, and I picked it up immediately based on their effusive description. It’s a massive book, and I’m taking it a section at a time with my other reading because it’s designed to have its sections be in conversation with one another rather than a typical beginning-to-end experience. It’s got an amazing lineup of authors as contributors, and I’m excited to dig into the other book club picks if they’re as carefully chosen as this one.

  • I’m also working on (a modified version of) BookRiot’s annual Read Harder challenge, and tackling Eugene Lee’s Buttermilk Graffiti as a food memoir written by an author of color. Lee’s book is a travelogue looking into the melting pot of American cultures bringing their cultural traditions to the smaller corners of the United States, and seeing the interesting ways those co-mingle.

  • I’m ALSO working on Marcia Chatelain’s Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, about the way McDonalds and other chain restaurants have had a surprising cooperation with black capitalism and civil rights. It’s dense but compelling reading, and I’m waiting for my hold at the library to come up again after needing more than 2 weeks with this one.

up ahead

  • The Atlantic had a sample of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, out next month, and I’m really intrigued based on the sample, since it feels like it’s going to be a novel that “gets” what it means to be on the internet…

  • …along with Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which had a snippet as a short story in The New Yorker last year and feels even more tweet-like. Lockwood’s Priestdaddy is a fantastic memoir and even though I don’t always fully feel like I “get” her poetry, I thought of “The Pinch” often the last few years, and her writing for the London Review of Books always has a poet’s eye I admire

  • In non-Fiction-About-The-Internet books to get excited about, Sarah Gailey’s last few books and their new book The Echo Wife has a fun premise:

Martine is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn Caldwell’s award-winning research. She’s patient and gentle and obedient. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never be. And she’s having an affair with Evelyn’s husband.

Now, the cheating bastard is dead, and the Caldwell wives have a mess to clean up. Good thing Evelyn Caldwell is used to getting her hands dirty.

How about you? How’s your January gone? What are you reading?

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december

and to all a good night

Every year on Goodreads, I create a faves-20## list to track the things I read that I really liked. It’s done in the moment, and I try to check in on it and cull things at midyear and in december so that it’s roughly 50-60 books max. If you want to see all of this year’s cuts in detail, click the image above. Here’s the 1̶0̶ 13 from that list I wanted to call out in particular, in no particular order (also, in the time it took to write this, a few things got added to that goodreads list that aren’t in the above image, lol).

See you next year!

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Fiction

  1. Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo
    This was one of the books I started my year with, and it’s been in the back of my mind throughout. This came on my radar after its joint win with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in last year’s Booker Prizes, and having now read and sat with both, I’d argue this should have won the prize solo.

    Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale is fine (I’m down for a good multi-perspective thriller, though it’s easy to figure out the plot beats once you realize who all is involved in the book), but the style of Girl Woman Other (text that’s somewhere between prose and poetry; chapters that follow one character each and form interlocking narratives with other chapters), the polyphonic voices of its characters, and the way it does all of the above and makes it seem like the easiest thing to read in the world all make it deserving of the prize.

    This is the book I think I’ve recommended the most to people this year, and a planned reading/Q&A with Evaristo at the Cambridge Public Library is probably the one event I’m still disappointed the pandemic cancelled.

  2. Forgotten Work, Jason Guriel
    It’s a concept that shouldn’t work: a novel in verse? A speculative fiction novel, at that? And it fills in styles like music reviews, fan forum posts, and other narrative exercises in iambic pentameter? And yet it does, and does so in such a gleeful way that I found myself slowing my normal reading pace to spend more time with the book. It feels like an album in miniature, each chapter a track (with some stylistic diversions), hurtling through the chronology of a band that barely existed and the cult of followers it created.

  3. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
    This is slim compared to Clarke’s previous novel, but has so many wonderful moments where you the reader know slightly more than the main character what’s happened to him. A great book about being lost to get lost in.

  4. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
    I keep an eye on (and vote in) both GoodReads and Book of the Month club’s annual best-of-the-year roundups, even though the nominees (and, usually, eventual winners) tend to remind me of how much my own reading diverges from their metrics of what is “popular”. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see The Vanishing Half get both BotM’s top accolade AND Best Historical Fiction over in GoodReads’ year-end roundup. The story of twin sisters whose paths diverge wildly after leaving their home (a city in Louisiana where everyone is light-skinned), this felt like a good sister-read to something like Nella Larsen’s Passing, but felt entirely contemporary. It also has such a great tablecloth-pulling moment for one of its characters that completely resets who they are for the reader, and it’s added Brit Bennett’s previous novel, The Mothers, to my TBR list for 2021.

  5. Crossings, Alex Landragin
    I’m still working my way through David Mitchell’s latest genre-bender, the music-focused Utopia Avenue (which feels like it’d go hand-in-hand with Forgotten Work), but this is the book that felt the Mitchellest to me, with its two ways of being read (either cover-to-cover or following an order of chapters listed up front that the e-book will actually guide you through if you so choose). It’s all wildly inventive and does some soul-swapping two-people-across-a-great-deal-of-time stuff that was a lot of fun.

  6. Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu
    Seeing this win the National Book Award this fall reminded me how good this had been when I read it after it came out at the end of January. It does some fun plays with form (large bits of the book are written in screenplay format) and has some great insights on being Asian-American in Hollywood and what we’re allowed to be.

  7. Mary Toft, or: The Rabbit Queen, Dexter Palmer
    I picked this up in late 2019 based on loving Version Control, Palmer’s previous book, as well as loving the trippy op-art-meets-The-Favourite cover art, and finally got to it in the leadup for the 2020 Tournament of Books. Historical fiction isn’t usually my jam as a reader, and this took a second to really click into place for me, but once it did, it REALLY clicked for me. Mary Toft is known in history for claiming to give birth to rabbits - she was later found to be a fraud. This uses that as its basis, but follows the apprentice to the doctor attending to Mary as its main character, with a brief glimpse into Mary’s psyche for one chapter. On a larger level (and as the plot gets more and more farcical), it’s a book about what we believe to be true as a collective, what we “buy”, and the lies we tell ourselves.

  8. A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet
    I wrote last month about feeling underwhelmed by the much-hyped Leave the World Behind, and I think it’s because I had read this earlier in the year and it did the parts of what that did that I liked better. I got drawn in by the cover of this one (which felt like an eerie child’s primer that had been through some shit), was lucky enough to get a galley, and was delighted by the prose inside. A chorus of slightly-too-wise-for-their-years children dealing with a destructive storm that their parents are too inebriated to care about narrate, and there’s some larger-scale climate metaphors going on that I think the book pulls off even if the landing is a little bumpy.

Non-Fiction

  1. This Is Major, Shayla Lawson
    I still haven’t figured out how this got on my radar, and I almost returned it to the library unread when I couldn’t figure it out, but then I read its first essay about American Girl dolls (and the lack of an African-American one until Addie, a former slave), got hooked and didn’t put it down until it was done. I’d put this in the same category as Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist or Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick — essay collections both specific to the experience of black womanhood and universal in what they explore. This would pair nicely as a fiction/nonfiction thing with Girl Woman Other.

  2. Boom Town, Sam Anderson
    I’m slowly learning to like professional sports by finding the weird and wonderful stories within the large corporate machine that I generally don’t care about. The main source for these are Jon Bois’ delightful videos for Secret Base. Boom Town is like a book version of those videos - it’s about Oklahoma City’s basketball team, but it’s also about the founding of Oklahoma City, the land rush, the 1994 bombing of the city, and so many things in between (like a fun diversion about a Capitalism Museum). It’s a wonderfully perfect blend of high and low culture.

  3. Jesus & John Wayne, Kristin Kobes du Mez
    I got really into reading about the rise and effects of Christian Nationalism within the United States this year. Not everything stuck (I look forward to reading books that cite Taking Back America For God in the future, but it was a bit too dry and I returned it to the library after a few chapters), but Jesus and John Wayne was the perfect starting place for some of the further reading I did (like The Power Worshippers, which has some great on-the-ground reporting from the efforts of the last few years). It’s clear and readable, and traces a great line from the start of the movement through to the bits of Evangelical Culture I remember from the 90s and early 00s.

  4. Can’t Even, Anne Helen Peterson
    I’ve been following AHP from her Scandals of Classic Hollywood days at The Hairpin through to her work both at Buzzfeed, and now at her own newsletter, Culture Study (which is worth a subscription for the “just trust me” links alone). She’s done a great job at taking her doctorate in old hollywood gossip and using that same investigative lens to cover both modern celebrity culture (as in her book Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud) and larger issues in the world today - she and her partner Charlie Warzel are working on a book about remote work out next year that’s already on my TBR list the second I have a title.

    Her article about millennial burnout last year went viral, and Can’t Even extends from that article to find out the particular whys and hows of the moment we’re in and how it’s hitting more than just millennials. Critics have been all over the place on this one, some coming to the book looking for answers it never promises to have, others that really get what it’s going for in its synthesis of the many sources it cites. I love the points it makes about returning to collective action, and it’s pointed my TBR list in some great directions for further reflection on what that could look like.

  5. Uncanny Valley, Anna Weiner
    As a Person In Tech who has an ever-growing list of Feelings about Startup Culture and Ethics in Technology (the short version of said feelings is that software as a field should have some sort of licensing/code of ethics for its builders and designers similar to medicine or other engineering fields), I also have an ever-growing Goodreads shelf of books talking about this. Anna Weiner’s memoir of a particular slice of early 2010s Bay Area startup culture is so vivid, and her outsider perspective as someone who suddenly realized they were the frog in the boiling pot of water in time to jump. There’s some lovely stylistic choices as well — company names as a whole are largely avoided, but easy to piece together, and her description of an outfit as a “startup twin set” made me audibly cackle as I read it in the park this summer.

november

I've made a little list...

Since November 7th, it’s felt like I’ve had a little piece of my brain back. Watching the radical joy taking place in the Count Every Vote protests in Philly, greedily devouring every Gritty meme, going outside on a beautiful Saturday, hearing people banging pots and pans at the end of the bike path near my apartment, immediately queuing up Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”. You get the picture. I knew it was just a moment, and that the work needed to continue (and still needs to continue), but for a moment, it felt a little sunnier, and something in my brain unlocked.

I’ve had a bunch of books I’ve picked up this year (or borrowed from my girlfriend) that I’ve tried to start but have just Not Had The Brain To Deal With. And now I’m starting to find all the nuts I’ve stored away for winter, finally ready to crack into them. On that list: Wolf Hall. Hidden Valley Road. Caste. The New Jim Crow and The Color of Law. My reading tends to swing between all-the-nonfiction and all-the-fiction phases, and right now I’m digging into the fiction as a nice warmup for getting back to nonfiction.

recent reads

  • I don’t remember how Shayla Lawson’s This is Major got on my radar, but I’m so glad it did. The description of the book puts it in the company of Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby, and I’d add Tressie McMillan Cottom’s name to that list, too. It opens with a killer essay on American Girl dolls and specifically not wanting Addy as a young black girl, and goes on to discuss the notion of “black girl magic”, the power of a photo of Diana Ross eating a rib, workplace microagressions, and so much more with a sharpness that had me tear through the book in about a day.

  • I read Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind while on vacation last month, and it was fine. I get why people were so hyped about it, but ultimately it didn’t blow me away like I wanted it to. I get why it was in contention for the National Book Award for fiction this year but I’m so glad Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown got it instead.

  • I mentioned The Man Who Ate Too Much before, but I finally devoured it last week. It’s a fantastic portrait of a foundational figure in American cuisine, and you can tell a food writer wrote it because it nails the general pleasure food can bring (the same reason I love reading Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks) and the way things were changing on the post-war American table.

in progress

  • I can’t figure out what of my usual sources for finding books got me to Plain Bad Heroines, but I’m really digging it. It’s a 610-page doorstopper that’s been surprisingly breezy so far, and there’s a very meta conceit (this is a book about a movie being made based off a non-fiction book about a cursed all-girls school in the 1920s, and it jumps between the actual events and the modern-day adaptation), but the narrator’s voice is so fun.

up ahead

this is the nice part of the year where publishers aren’t really putting out new titles until 2021, so I can both catch up on the things I’ve squirreled away/piled around my apartment AND decimate my to-be-read list with everything the best-of-2020 lists list that I didn’t already have on my radar (looking at you, giant NPR Book Concierge).

Next month: the things I enjoyed reading most this year, whether published in 2020 or before

october

spooky season

it’s spooky season, so I’ve been indulging in scary movies. Well, “scary” movies — 70s and 80s arty stuff where the practical effects are obviously over-the-top (like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Phenomena, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch), and the sort of maybe-this-was-kind-of-scary-in-the-50s-but-now-it’s-just-campy stuff (like William Castle movies and anything with Vincent Price) is my particular October speed.

Texas Monthly had a wonderful oral history of Wishbone last month that I encourage you all to read. Please picture a tiny Ben pressed against the railing of the third floor of the Mall of America during the mention of the Target/Mall of America event that mentions, because I was there.

Reading that made me think about the tie-in paperback series they had with the show, where books split their time between a (young reader-appropriate) retelling of classic lit mixed in with a modern-day plotline, just like the show. Other things I remember about this series:

  1. Target had them next to the Animorphs books and other trade-paperbacks-for-young-readers series like Goosebumps

  2. There was also totally a flipbook thing in the corner of the pages with Wishbone doing a flip.

I LOVED them and had a decent chunk of them, but I’m also realizing that the Wishbone paperback version of Beowulf (titled, of course, Be a Wolf!) does not count as having actually read Beowulf. Luckily, there’s a new version from Maria Dahvana Headley whose profile in the New Yorker totally grabbed my attention and got me excited to read a version that translates its “Hwaet” as “Bro!”. I really liked what Emily Wilson did in her translation of The Odyssey a few years ago, so I’m excited to dig into this and see another “classic” of the literary canon translated through a more modern lens.

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recent reads

  • I’ve been reading (or at least trying to read, in one case) more about the rise of Christian Nationalism, as someone who grew up in its Evangelical shadow in the Midwest in the 90s. I’ve been a few chapters into The Power Worshippers for months, and while it’s very good, it’s still just academic enough that I have to let it digest and think about what its author is discussing. It’s very good, but also very depressing at times.

    On the other hand, I tore through Jesus and John Wayne, which was an excellent primer AND wove the rise of this particular stream of the right with another favorite topic of mine to read about lately, “are men ok?”. This was exactly my speed, has a great chronological framework, and also does some great analysis in why John Wayne gets held up as a paragon of a particular type of masculinity to boot. AND it’s super accessible! What more can you ask for?

  • On the lighter side of things, I also devoured Natalie Zina Walschotts’ Hench, which creates a world where supervillain henchpeople get booked through temp agencies and follows one such hench’s rise through the ranks, complete with supervillain bosses who care a little too much about your emotional well-being, data-crunching about whether superheroes are actually saving the world, and some general superheroes-have-real-people-problems stuff that reminded me of Soon I Will Become Invincible from a few years ago, The Incredibles, and Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

  • One title I didn’t shred through this last month (though I absolutely wanted to) was Jason Guriel’s Forgotten Work. The description of the book absolutely had my number:

    In the year 2063, on the edge of the Crater formerly known as Montréal, a middle-aged man and his ex's daughter search for a cult hero: the leader of a short-lived band named after a forgotten work of poetry and known to fans through a forgotten work of music criticism.

    I am amazed at how well all of this works. It’s a novel in rhyming couplets! That’s speculative fiction! About music snobs and valuing things because they’re rare rather than whether you like them or not and writing fanfiction on music forums and robot butlers. The book feels like an immaculately-sequenced album that I didn’t want to end, so I stretched out my time with it as much as I could.

in progress

  • It seemed appropriate to follow up one high-concept novel mythologizing a band that never existed with another, so I’m finally digging into David Mitchell’s new novel from earlier this year, Utopia Avenue.

  • I’m going on a long weekend’s vacation down to the cape and resisting the urge to pack All The Books, but in addition to Beowulf and Utopia Avenue (and everything else that’s currently sitting unread on my Kindle), I’m bringing Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and some PG Wodehouse. The point of this weekend is to get away, and Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories are one of my literary comfort reads. I want to expand into the rest of his back catalog, and thus when Piccadilly Jim popped up in something else I read, I added it to the listt and found a decent used copy.

up ahead

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