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Fall Things

Between my best beloved Molly dying suddenly and Hillary losing the election to a cat-hair-covered cheeto someone found under the couch and ate anyway, it has not been a good fall for writing or reading, unless you count endlessly refreshing 538 and breathlessly reading each new article about Trump’s cabinet of horrors. But here are some things I read, anyway.

*Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – Both funny and harrowing.

*My Struggle, vol. 1 by Karl Over Knausgaard – This was so intriguing. I think it had something to do with the merciless clarity which which the narrator sees himself. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I feel like if a woman had written a novel this long about, essentially, the frustrations of housekeeping and dealing with your annoying, dysfunctional family, it would not have been such a THING. I bought volume 2, though, so I am a fan.

*The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan- Perfectly frothy and delightful.

*Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter and Lolly Willowes: or, The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner – two of my favourite short story writers didn’t produce two of my favourite novels. Oh well. You can’t be good at everything.

*Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong – This was so interesting from a cultural POV, but also I wish this book had been edited more competently.

*The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux – no thanks.

*Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt – Mansour and I both read this, and we both liked it a lot. This book has been a real inspiration to me to follow whatever weird imaginative thread I want in my writing.

*Silence by Shusaku Endo – a book entirely devoid of hopefulness. Worth it despite that.

*In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon – This was fun!

*The Vegetarian by Han Kang – Read this. Now. At once.

*Senselessness by Horacio Castellans Moya – I also thought this was great, and I felt like it belonged on the same shelf as Concrete. That shelf is something like ‘misanthrope goes on an absurd trip, witnesses the tragedies of others.’

Some Books I Read This Winter

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Edit: how amazing is this collage I made?! My computer freaks out whenever I try to open Paint, so this is the best I could do. Yes, I know half of the cover of Housekeeping is missing, but honestly I think Robinson would approve. It’s thematic or whatever.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset: I guess I can’t say that a writer who won the Nobel Prize is underrated, but this book was so wonderful and it literally made me cry, which almost never happens. And it’s SUCH a hard sell when I tell people about it. You use the words 14th century Norway, and immediately your listener’s eyes glaze over, but it’s such a beautiful book(s) about girlhood and womanhood. #historicalfictiongoals

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck: Another Nobel Prize winner! This was one of the only books I’ve read in recent memory that when I mentioned it to my dad, his answer was “Oh, I’ve read that!” Anyway, the language, the voice, in this book was sort of revelatory. It was able to take in so many characters, and cover so much ground so quickly without ever coming across as superficial or cliched. It’s that big-picture expository voice that still eludes me. Sketch-y but rich…a seeming paradox. I wish I could talk to someone about it.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: A book I thought I would love, but that I ended up finding really difficult to get through. I’m still not sure why. I think I ended up feeling that the characters’ problems somehow lacked urgency, that their plight was sort of alien or arcane to me. Sort of contrived? Maybe it just wasn’t the right moment in my life to read it? I’ll try her again in a while. I hate when I don’t love something that many people I respect love. It makes me feel like I’m reading…badly?

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: Still on the fence about Ferrante, too. To keep talking about the same thing I just talked about, with certain books I can SEE why they’re brilliant (her depiction of this friendship between two women is so honest and complete and complicated, it really is a marvel), but for whatever reason they don’t take hold of my heart the way others do. I listened to this one, which might be part of the problem? After I finish My Struggle Vol. 1, I think I’ll buy the next Ferrante in paper book form. So much to read, so much to read!

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss: I’ve been listening to these when I run, and need something less dense to occupy myself with. Prose-wise, they are definitely on the purple spectrum. The writing is not not purple. I am not sure that this plot couldn’t have been condensed…a LOT. But they’re great fun despite that! Again, I feel like having an audiobook narrated by a real human voice distorts my perception, because in this case the voice is super-young and whenever he tries to be romantic I’m like “gross, go text someone or something.”

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino: whenever I read Calvino, I think of the word confection: something beautiful and carefully constructed out of air and pastry. This is such a bittersweet book. Maybe I’m just on a crying jag, because this was also really moving. When Prince Andrei came out of the woods (this is just a weird little detail) I was like… =(.

-I also read the newest JK Rowling/Cormorant Strike book, A Career of Evil. This continues to be my favorite contemporary mystery series (though I have to say I WISH JK Rowling would stop talking about Harry Potter*). And I listened to Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, which I last read when I was like 12, and I still love it, still wish I’d written it.

*You love it, I love it, we all love it. I don’t need to hear from her about it anymore. I get why authors promote their books of course. It’s a crowded marketplace! And I’m glad as a writer that I have access to the thoughts and methods of other practitioners. But as a reader, I really hate to hear from the writer of a book I like. HATE IT. I just want the story, and I want it the way I read it, the way it exists in my head. I don’t want or need someone to come along and start shaping and shifting that with an endless series of peripheral details and commentary. One of the things I love about written work is that it’s a collaboration between the writer and the reader, who is also creative, who builds the world of the story in his or her head, who fills it with all these beautiful little things from their own lives and experiences. I’d like to be trusted, as a reader, to do my job.

 

A Query Letter I Have Talked Myself Out of Writing

HELLO EDITOR AND FRIEND.

Do not be alarmed!!! It is only me, that anonymous presence from your slush pile.

LOL.

I notice you have had my submission for 222 days! God is that FOREVER, or does it just feel like forever?? Is it cold where you are? I bet it was pretty warm when I first sent my submission 7 months ago.

What do you dream about?

Also, any idea when I can expect a response?

I know, I know…magazines don’t work for writers…writers work for magazines. Yes, I know you’re busy. I LOVE YOU AND I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND LET ME BE YOUR FRIEND I LIKE EVERYTHING YOU LIKE.

I blacked out for a second. I’ll just check my email to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

Kind regards,

Me.

Books I Have Read Lately

Let’s do this real fast-like.

Life After Life: I love that this book was willing to play with a conceit that could have been gimmicky. I was telling someone recently that probably my favorite feeling when I’m reading is the thrill I get from reading along as a great writer tries something risky that probably shouldn’t work, and then it does.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Honestly, I thought I would like this more. Beautiful sentences, loved the sense of adventure, but the journalistic tone that carries us from one scene to the next kept popping me out of the story. Michael Chabon is a genius though, so I probably just have bad taste.

Louise Penny mysteries 1 and 2: Loved Gamache and the setting, but found the stories and peripheral characters unbelievable and was consequently annoyed.

Crazy Rich Asians: This would have been great if it hadn’t been a story about the two most boring, oblivious characters in the woooooorld. The whole world. I would have read the HELL out of a book about only the “bad” characters.

Mrs. Dalloway: Can you believe I waited this long to read Woolf? What is even wrong with me?

The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself: Haha, she cray. No, I mean, I found this really interesting and it gave me so many cool ideas to write about, but still…she cray.

Brother, I’m Dying: A wonderful, affecting memoir.

Song of the Lark: Wonderful; speaks to the experience of being a woman artist in ways that are relevant even now.

Tristes Tropiques: I thought this was so fascinating, especially his explanations of the belief systems of several of the tribes he visits. There was a Sebaldian melancholy here that I liked a lot, a mixture of longing and revulsion when it comes to the past that I think springs from his awareness of his position as a white man, a part (however personally innocuous he might be) of the forces of colonialism and globalization that have destroyed the cultures he studies.

Come See the Mountain: A great, short piece on the Potosi mine, not unrelated to the above.

Bad Feminist: I love Roxane Gay, even when I don’t 100% agree with her about every last thing. Also, her twitter is great. There is never a fool too small for her to spend a sentence on, and I for one appreciate her willingness to engage with the hoi polloi.

La Celestina: I finished this! I FEEL GREAT. Also, this reminded me of the tendency we (I?) have to think about civilizations as always moving in the direction of liberalism, when the truth is that impression is only the result of a myopia that ignores a lot of history and also ISIS.

Ok, fine, 70 stories in 70 days.

51. Little Gods by Tim Pratt

52. L’Aquilone du Estrellas by Dean Francis Alfar

53. Window Treatments by Ottessa Moshfegh

54. The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979 by Karen Russell

55. The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis by Karen Russell

56. Kino by Haruki Murakami

57. A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets by Kevin Brockmeier

58. The View From the Seventh Layer, also by Kevin Brockmeier

59. Scheherazade by Haruki Murakami

60. Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

61 and 62. Some stories by Angela Carter

63. One Gram Short by Etgar Keret

64. If A Book is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think by Helen Oyeyemi

65. The Husband Stitch and Horror Story by Carmen Maria Machado

66. Recalculating by Deborah Eisenberg. A story that has the scope of a novel.

67. The Enormous Radio by John Cheever

68. Meneseteung by Alice Munro

69.The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro

70. In the Gloaming by Alice Elliott Dark