[disclaimer: I wrote most of this instead of reading Wallace Stevens in preparation for my English midterm. If it's only half as disjointed as "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" it... should still be pretty incomprehensible, actually.]
I'd assumed that being at school would bring my book count significantly down, but the damage isn't as bad as I'd feared; I managed ten this month besides school books, and two of them were really quite long.
Jill Lepore, Joe Gould's Teeth. This book is so good; I think it's the only biography I've ever read that's gripped me like a novel. Joe Gould was for a while very famous, mostly because he had famous friends—he got check-ups from William Carlos Williams! Alice Neel painted him! he was friends with Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings! (Gould and Pound bonded over how much they both hated Jewish people, this is literally a true fact, I hate Ezra Pound with the fire of a thousand suns.) Nowadays almost no one has heard of him, which is a shame. He got into Harvard as a legacy student, dropped out of Harvard, worked briefly for a eugenicist organization, was often homeless and at least once institutionalized, and he also invented oral history. Lepore's book is about all this, and it's also about Augusta Savage, a black sculptor Joe Gould harassed for years. Sad, weird, highly recommended.
Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales. A contemporary verse retelling of the Canterbury Tales. I mentioned this on the blog back when I first found out about it, and almost as soon as I moved back to Wheaton I ordered an ILL of it. It's just as good as I was hoping it might be. Clever, funny, experimental, true to the source material, and she made the Miller's Tale even more bawdy. (I know! I was astonished too!) There's no real dead wood here, even the Tale of Melibee is surprising, but my very favorites were "Joined-Up Writing" (a sonnet cycle based on the Man of Law's Tale) and "The Contract" (the Second Nun's Tale, as narrated by one of the assassins who killed Cecilia).
Pamela Dean, Tam Lin. A re-read. This is a college novel about fairies. It was one of my favorite books in high school, and one of the few books I brought with me to university, but I was nervous about reading it again as an actual college student myself. I finally reread it on Labor Day, when I was recovering from a ghastly cold and needed to read something engaging but not actually taxing. To my delight, it held up and had even improved. Several of the characters are classics majors (in that sense it's really sort of a lighter-and-softer counterpart to The Secret History) and those parts were even better now that I student ancient Greek myself. I love this book.
Susan Palwick, Shelter. Why does no one ever talk about Susan Palwick? How does Susan Palwick not have a Hugo? This is near-future science fiction about AI and parenthood and mental illness. It's not one of those one-big-change books, it's subtle and complex and there's a lot going on in it. Palwick gets a lot of things right that writers, and sci-fi writers in particular, usually get wrong—she writes wonderfully about religion for one thing, and for another she can write believable children. Nick isn't a normal child, or a healthy one, but he's as desperately real as the adult characters are. Absorbing, stunning, you need to read it now.
Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. A feminist memoir. It's good, funny and angry and well-written, but I'm not sure it's quite as good as it's been made out to be. This may be partly because I'd already heard some of the best bits on a recent episode of This American Life. Caitlin Moran on the back cover is particularly egregious in saying that it's "literally the new Bible." Right. And Jessica Valenti's memoir is literally the Bhagavad Gita, and Bad Feminist is literally the Enuma Elish, and words literally mean nothing. Come on, Caitlin.
Lucy Knisley, Something New. Another memoir, this one a comic about Knisley's wedding. Fun, but slight and overlong. I might write something longer about it; watch this space.
Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter Leigh is a priest (n.b. the book does not use the word priest and I think that might be significant), Anglican-not-otherwise-specified, who gets sent to a recently-colonized planet to act as a missionary to the native population. This was a disappointment. It's a long book, and a lot of it is spent inside Peter's head, or in his emails home to his wife, and that's a problem given that Peter is neither likable nor interesting; at the end of the book I felt I didn't know much about him and didn't care to know more. (Note: based on plot developments, this is possibly something Faber's doing intentionally. It didn't work for me.) Theological science fiction is my entire jam, and I'll read as many examples as the industry produces, but this book is not great. The theology's nothing to write home about either, and much of the writing about Peter's faith felt fairly shallow to me. Just read The Sparrow instead.
Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue. A classic of feminist sci-fi. How much you enjoy this book will depend on your tolerance for second-wavers and the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I can cope with both of those things in a controlled environment, so I thought it was pretty awesome. A lot of the thought here falls apart fairly quickly if you start picking at it even a little bit (a text message I sent to my mother halfway through: "I reject the essentialist notion of a single 'female experience' in any kind of universalized sense"), but if you're into this sort of thing it's worth your time. I like it better than The Handmaid's Tale, to which it is usually compared, because Elgin writes female friendship better and is less afraid of science fiction cooties.
Susan Palwick, The Necessary Beggar. Absolutely wonderful. When Darroti kills a woman, he and his family are exiled to another dimension. They come through in a refugee camp in Nevada, where they start a long slow process of learning to live in another world. This book is about home and family and grief, and it's both sad and hopeful. Palwick does a gorgeous job of building her fantasy world, and of writing the culture shock that comes with the move to ours. (Content warning for suicide.)
Patrice Kindl, Owl in Love. This won the Mythopoeic Award for Children's Lit in 1995, and it unquestionably deserved it; this is what YA was made to do, and I've never read anything like it. Owl is a fourteen-year-old in love with her science teacher, and being a were-owl doesn't help. The first-person narration is both completely realistic and utterly alien: Owl is cold, uncertain, overconfident, passionate, awkward, brilliant, and totally sui generis.
Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year. This was for my Intro to Anthropology class. An anthropology professor in her fifties enrolls in her university as a freshman so she can understand the undergraduate experience, comes away with astonishing insights like "sometimes students don't do all their assigned reading." I too was stunned!
So that's eleven in total, ten of them by women. Four nonfiction, one comic, one book of poetry. All of them were library books except for Tam Lin and My Freshman Year, which I own. (Well, Freshman is a rental.) My favorite was either Owl in Love or one of the Palwick books, and I'll definitely be seeking out more by both Palwick and Kindl. I'll see you next month with another haul!
“the death of gods is a chain reaction”
2 hours ago