Even though school started and I am now doing a lot of legal reading, I am managing to find time to get some leisure reading done. That might be due to the brain space that’s freeing up as my pandemic terror levels are decreasing. It might also be the emotional exhaustion from the past two years; my brain needs something to help it relax.
The leisure reading incorporates everything again. I can read romance now, which I couldn’t earlier, and humor is starting to work for me again too. Dunno why. Just is.
I was reading a huge book of essays slowly, about a quarter of one per day, and while I found several of them good, many of them are just annoying. They’re all afflicted with “serious writer voice,” except for a handful, which are also some of the only essays that aren’t by white academics. In the introduction, the editor grumpily complained about the way other best contemporary essay volumes are edited, and added that maybe his grumpiness is due to his being an elderly white male, which put me off at first. Then I realized, nope, the reason I am not going to recommend the entire volume isn’t the whiteness, maleness, or slightly snobby perspectives. It’s the serious writer voice. Many of the essays are whiny, complaining about difficult parents or tiny trivial problems. If they had a real voice, I might enjoy them more, but they all sound the same. The essays blend one into the other.
Ultimately, I gave up on the book about halfway through. The bias is extreme. It’s as if there’s a prescribed standard—women write about female things, people of color write about racism, people from Asia write about their countries…. and all in serious writer voice. I scanned to find something in a real voice, and found Joyce Carol Oates, but it was a rather tame essay of hers. I got to a piece on faculty wives (no kidding) and I couldn’t go any farther. The navel-gazing in this volume was off the charts. (Normally, I wouldn’t be this critical of a publication, but since I’m recommending some of the essays, I wanted you to know why there’s nothing from the second half of the book.I didn’t get to the second half of the book.) Speaking of the ones I’m recommending, try to find them as standalones, though, or in their original publications.
I also started an anthology of “mystery” stories edited by someone I’d never heard of. The anthology had more horror than actual mystery, and what was there lacked depth and originality. (I can sometimes forgo depth for a fascinating story.) The foreword mentioned that forewords are pretentious, but the author had to do a foreword just to tell us how wonderful the anthology was. And it didn’t have bios, so the one story I did kinda sorta like didn’t tell me anything about the author. I gave up midway through, and left the book on a table in the UNLV Student Union. Maybe someone else will enjoy the book more than I did. (There are no used bookstores in Las Vegas right now, so I’m releasing books into the wild.)
I also read a number of books that are challenging, and I had the brain power to do so. I enjoyed all of that as well.
6E151, “I, Food Delivery Robot,” translated by Preston Schmitt, On Wisconsin, Winter, 2021. Okay, this was just whimsical and fun. An article “written” by the food delivery robot. Really, the author trailed the robot from receipt of the food to delivery. But the echoes of sf and the way that it worked and the photos…fun.
Armstrong, Kelley, Ballgowns and Butterflies, KLA Fricke inc, 2021. This is the holiday novella that comes after the novel. I’m glad too, because the novel left me with a few questions that the novella answers beautifully. But I’m not saying more. You’ll like this if you liked the novel (below).
Armstrong, Kelley, A Stitch in Time, KLA Fricke Inc, 2020. Very Gothic in the best sense of the word. Bronwyn Dale inherits an old house (check) in England (check) and the house is haunted (check). In fact, her uncle died there and she hasn’t been back since. When she was there, she found a time portal in her bedroom (oooh, nice) and it sent her back to Victorian times where she met a boy her age. Her first love. Of course, after her uncle’s death, she was not only thrown from the house, but she also was convinced she was crazy (check) and so thought the time-travel/ghosts part didn’t exist. She got bettah and married a man who died suddenly, and now, years later, she’s inherited the house with surprise kittens and scary ghosts and…well, I couldn’t put this down. It was just what I needed. A mixed genre Gothic-romancy thing with kittens. Perfect.
Baxter, John, A Year in Paris, Harper Perennial, 2019. I love Baxter’s books, as you know, and this one I read right over the new year. It uses the framework of the calendar invented during the French Revolution to discuss the seasons in Paris, as well as other items like the passage of time. I learned a lot, and I enjoyed even more.
Beller, Thomas, “Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man,” The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. I have to admit the title caught me. One of my favorite James Joyce stories is “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” The pieces have a little in common—the naive young writer in a situation where he is out of his depth—but that’s about it. Here, Beller writes a personal essay, a memoir really, of his time as an assistant in a bagel factory in New York. The details are great, the people wonderful, the situation difficult. It’s an excellent piece, thoughtful and well done.
Block, Lawrence, “The End of the Beginning,” Mystery Scene Magazine, Fall 2021. An excerpt from Larry’s memoir, A Writer Prepares, inspired me to ask him into an upcoming Storybundle with the entire memoir. This excerpt talks about teh way that a character changed his life, and how he went from idea to book series. Fascinating stuff.
Castle, Terry, “Home Alone,” The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. I like this much better than I should have, given the tone and the attitude herein. It’s about one woman’s interest in decorating her home, about home magazines like Architectural Digest, and more. I had a disconcerting reading experience, because this stupid book of essays has no bios of the authors and I hadn’t heard of Terry Castle. I thought she was a he at the beginning, and then some things struck me as very non-masculine, so I thought gender-neutral. Then I realized borderline mean girl. So I looked for the bio, and nope, none. So unless I remember the names of authors to look up later, I’ll never look for their works, defeating the point of an anthology, in my opinion. But, anyway. Interesting. A bit humbling. Worth the read.
Chee, Alexander, “Girl,” The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. I read this essay before and I could have sworn that I recommended it before, but I can’t find the recommendation, so here it is again. It’s a fantastic piece about Chee discovering his own identity, while dressing in drag for a Halloween party. Vivid and unforgettable.
Cole, Teju, “Black Body,” The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. Cole calls this piece about a subjective rereading of James Baldwin’s “A Stranger in the Village,” but it’s oh so much more than that. (Here’s a link to the original publication, in The New Yorker.)Cole writes from the same Swiss village that Baldwin wrote in sixty-some years before. Some things have changed, but much has not. It’s a reflection on racism, on America, on Europe, on taste…well, read it. But I must share this quote, which I think is worth saving, particularly after the past 5 years:
American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
I love the word “camouflage.” Donald Trump gave the hardcore racists the opportunity to climb out of the mud, and they have. Now the entire world can see the country’s ugly underbelly. Cole looks at that, but at some of the beauty as well. Fascinating piece.
Clark, P. Djèlí, “Ring Shout,” Tor, 2020. “Ring Shout” is an amazing story. Exceedingly well done, difficult to put down, and beautifully imagined. The tagline: “In America, Demons Wear Hoods,” is a well-duh. But Clark did more than make the bigots of the Klan into actual demons. He used magic and legend to create his own American mythology. Set in 1915, as the Klan rose to enforce Jim Crow and all those other terrible laws that amplified America’s not-so-hidden racism, Maryse Boudreaux and other resistance fighters fight the flames being fanned by a cursed movie, The Birth of A Nation. This book made me cheer, laugh, and cry. My only complaint…and I’m not sure it is a complaint…is the cover. While I found it ugly, I also found it appealing. The cover did its job and made me pick up the book, even when I didn’t want to. Still, not sure if I personally like it though, a sad complaint considering how very much I love, love, love this novella. Read it if you haven’t already. It’s spectacular.
Doyle, Brian, “Joyas Volardoras, The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. A lovely short piece that starts out about hummingbirds, but ends up about so much more. It’s so short and its point so succinct that I don’t dare say much more.
Dyer, Geoff, “Otherwise Known as The Human Condition (With Particular Reference to Doughnut Plant Doughnuts), The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. No essay in this collection was published after 2019. Many were published before 2019. This particular essay hails from 2011, and honestly, it feels like it came out of a distant past.
Dyer used to walk everywhere in various cities. He notes the value of routine, the way we often no longer see what we pass daily, and the importance of routine to our “human condition.” He particularly focuses on elevensies (you hobbit fans take note) or second breakfast. He used to be quite particular about his, and the essay focuses on that with very fussy and enjoyable detail.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, what happened to the poor man during the pandemic as all of his routines got blown to smithereens. I mean, this is a man who ate donuts and drank cappuccino for second breakfast when he was in Japan, for heaven’s sake. So, yeah, I found myself curious. The essay remains worth the read, though.
Freed, Lynn, “Some Thoughts On Doing No Harm: Reading and Writing in the Age of Umbrage,” The Contemporary American Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Knopf Doubleday, 2021. I have a hunch I know why this essay was included in this particular volume. It’s the same reason that my beloved elderly brother-in-law, a retired professor, keeps sending me clippings from The Wall Street Journal on the evils of “woke” people, which comes from a complete misunderstanding of what non-white, non-male people are discussing.
This piece isn’t one of those. It’s more nuanced, because the issue is nuanced. I’m not sure I agree with Freed’s conclusions—many of them feel much too easy—but they got me thinking nonetheless, which is important. So, recommended, with hesitation.
St. James, Simone, Lost Among The Living, New American Library, 2016. This was precisely the book I needed in January. It’s a traditional Gothic, with scary ghosts and a bit of a romance, but also, in the 1960s way, an unreliable hero (is he bad? Isn’t he?). Jo Manders lost her husband to WWI. She’s a poor widow, who supports her mother who happens to be in a home for people we would now call mentally ill. Jo ends up taking a job as a companion to her husband’s aunt, a waspish woman named Dottie.At the beginning of this book, I was convinced St. James was doing a take on Rebecca, and in many ways she is (Manders? Really?). But the book is much different, in the end. Still, it explores the great losses of 100 years ago, the ways that people cope, the way that love factors in (or doesn’t), and how heartbreak can change people. Really well done, and highly recommended.
Steinhoff, Jessica, “Say What is True,”On Wisconsin, Winter, 2021. An article about writer Beth Nguyen, who also works as a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin. She discusses what it was like to grow up Vietnamese American in the Midwest at a time when few people looked like her. She found a pathway into her own life through food. The piece did its job and made me want to read her work.
Tursten, Helene, “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa,” An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed, translated by Marlaine Delargy, Soho Crime, 2021. I love Tursten’s “elderly lady” stories. They’re biting and witty and a bit creepy. The book itself is a loose collection of these stories, almost forming a novel. But not quite. And not all the stories standalone either. The last story in the volume, “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa,” more or less redeems Maud, which I’m not quite sure I approve of, but the way she gets redeemed is something that I do approve of. So I’ve been thinking about this story since I read it. If you like the “elderly lady” stories, you’ll like this volume.