Friday, June 3, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 2: pre-2021 books edition)

51) The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

Nah.

50) Bee People and the Bugs They Love (Frank Mortimer)

I think I would actively dislike Frank Mortimer if I met him in person, and I didn't get a ton out of this book, but it was mostly fine.

49) All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy)

This story of two boys who run away with some horses genuinely did nothing for me. I didn't even really connect with the language. The plot kind of did something, but I don't really like plot, so that's kind of bottom of the barrel. Someday I'll understand McCarthy.

48) The Corona Crash (Grace Blakely)

Another in Verso's weirdly demsoc series on the covid-19 pandemic. Much better than last year's The Care Manifesto, but also weirdly invested (if I'm recalling correctly) on pseudo-Keynesian responses to the pandemic.

47) I Am Cuba (Stephen Langdon Cost)

Probably more on the historical fiction end than the literary nonfiction, I ended up feeling about this similarly to how I felt about a much better book by Miéville that comes up much later, although on a different subject.

46) The Silence (Don Delillo)

A slim Don Delillo novel about how bad phones are, probably. No, that's not fair. It's about a power outage and an escalating series of philosophical discussions with some weird hetero shit thrown in. It's apparently classified as Humor in my libro.fm app? That's a choice. Solidly written and completely forgettable, honestly.

45) Death in a Promised Land (Scott Ellsworth)

I feel like I read this a century ago. Ellsworth is an academic focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and this is written in reportage style. It's hard, with moments of resistance. It's similar in many ways to Les & Tamara Payne's The Dead Are Arising, especially in the pacing. I am glad to have read it.

44) Angelica's Smile (Andrea Camilleri)

I'm going to be honest: this one kind of left no impression on me other than that I remember it being unfortunately horny and I was into the fact that the people were robbing rich folks' vacation homes.

43) The Track of Sand (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one that left little enough trace on my memory that even reading summaries doesn't really bring anything forth other than the image of the dead horse in the show version. I'll be honest: it could be good, it could be bad. I did read it! I just have no memory.

42) The Paper Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

One of the less great Montalbano books sees the Inspector contemplating his age and getting hit on by a bunch of hot young ladies. Never a womanizer, there are moments that are fun but overall it ends up feeling a bit all over the place.

41) The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Carolyn Keene)

The first four words of this book are “That Oriental-looking woman…” so yeah. There’s some shit about perfume. A really bad one.

40) Treasure Hunt (Andrea Camilleri)

While the explosive opening (two old religious jerks firing rounds onto a town square in a house filled with crucifixes and a sex doll) ends up overshadowing the actual mystery, it is a really good opening. One of the better examples of the way Camilleri starts playing with metafiction later in the series (as the television show version of Montalbano begins eclipsing the books, at least in parts of Italy) despite paring back some of the other literary devices, and the mystery itself isn't bad.

39) Phoenix Extravagant (Yoon-Ha Lee)

Another casualty of brain fog, Yoon Ha Lee's Phoenix Extravagant is a book I will need to revisit again at some point down the line. My overwhelming feeling is that he is being pigeonholed or incentivized to write things that are more in line with Young Adult fiction than the Machineries of Empire series, and I find that to be a bummer. Maybe in 2022 I will try to do a full read-through of his work. I think he's one of the best authors writing, and I'm bummed I haven't connected with his last two books.

38) Rounding the Mark (Andrea Camilleri)

Still fairly early in the series, Rounding the Mark sees Montalbano disgusted with the pseudo-fascist response of the Prime Minister to the G8 protests and prepared to resign. He gets caught up with Ingrid again, as well as inadvertently leading a refugee boy to some human traffickers. One of the more tumultuous in the series, it's also a fairly solid case study in the movement from the more complex early novels toward the later, breezier ones.

37) The Clue in the Diary (Carolyn Keene)

Having flipped through it, I still remember absolutely nothing about this mystery. Which is a shame, because I literally don’t know if it was any good. I don’t think so, though, really.

36) The Bungalow Mystery (Carolyn Keene)

One of the less interesting mysteries, but it does start with a bang in a storm on a ship. I also remember the Donnelly’s being likable.

35) The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Carolyn Keene)

A Nancy Drew doppelganger and something called “charge plates” are most of why this mystery is fun. There’s a marriage too I guess?

34) Tentacle (Rita Indiana)

Rita Indiana is a Dominican genderfucky songwriter. Tentacle is about a full-transition shot and the fulfillment of a prophecy and time travel, I think? It's a good time if you dig a really fucked up book that rings real through speculative elements. Also their songs are very good.

33) The Revolution of the Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

Another piece of historical fiction centered on the 27-day reign of a queen in Sicily in the 18th century. It's a cute, zippily written political thriller about a woman being in power and providing things the people actually need - like bread and reproductive rights - right up until the moment that the larger power structure gets rid of her. Like The Sacco Gang (more on that later), it's probably more Camilleri than real history, and as with that book I'm pretty fine with that.

32) Breasts & Eggs (Mieko Kawakami)

I think this, along with Detransition, Baby, were the two books I was most disappointed I didn't like more from authors that were unfamiliar to me. There are some exceptional moments here, descriptions of sweaty nights and intergenerational conflicts that barely breathe a word. There is also a scene in a spa that involves a possibly trans character. That scene really took the wind out of my sails.

31) The Patience of the Spider (Andrea Camilleri)

This 2004 novel is another example of a really solid early entry in the series, with the closest I think Camilleri ever came to a genuine supervillain/rival style antagonist. While not quite up to the mark of the great books in the series, it's a real good one.

30) The Age of Doubt (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one of the stronger late books, The Age of Doubt has a rock solid opening that puts his aging issues, his relationship doubts, and his dissatisfaction with his job into a hypnagogic cauldron and sets things boiling. The luxury yacht juxtaposed with the speedboat (which themselves, in the port, are juxtaposed against the many refugee stories throughout the series) and the poisoning are fun.

29) The Hidden Staircase (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew does haunted houses, Scooby Doo-style. In my memory this is actually one of the more elaborately-plotted books of the ten I read this year, including the abduction of Carson Drew, Nancy’s lawyer father. It’s a good one of these.

28) Password to Larkspur Lane (Carolyn Keene)

The tenth book in the series is a pretty pleasant one as well. A mysterious wheel of fire is showing up at her friend’s family’s house. There’s an old lady being held against her will. I barely remember how it ends, but I remember enjoying the ride. I also just dig any goofy supernatural shit, so maybe that informed my take.

27) The Secret of Shadow Ranch (Carolyn Keene)

Fucking cool-ass ghost horse. I remember this one really positively, but I also remember reading that it was one of the ones more heavily edited for being hella racist. So there’s that. I think this is the one that introduces love interests for the gals, who are wildly uninteresting.

26) The Dance of the Seagull (Andrea Camilleri)

The titular dance - Montalbano sees a seagull swoop and plummet and spin in strange circles before expiring - is one of the more powerful images in the series. Most Montalbano books rely on their propulsive prose, your interest in the mystery, the landscapes and the exquisite descriptions of food, with only a soupcon of interest in the surreal or poetic movement of things. The mystery is a little less compelling, although Fazio's twists make up for some of that. A good piece of texture for the rest of the series, but maybe not the best starting point.

25) The Wings of the Sphinx (Andrea Camilleri)

Another entry in the mid-late period Montalbano books sees the Inspector obsessing over senescence. Which isn't bad or good, necessarily - I enjoy, to a degree, the fact that he ages along with the author instead of staying Bond-young forever and which paid off greatly in the last two stories (see my 2021 books of 2021 list for those) - but it can get a bit samey. Of those, this story might be my favorite as Montalbano looks for a girl with a sphinx moth tattoo and encounters some real weirdos.

24) Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew is going to inherit a bunch of money! But it’s actually a different Nancy Drew, who is an actress. This one is honestly probably the best on a pure popcorn level, imo.

23) The Potter's Field (Andrea Camilleri)

If there were a Hollywood movie in any of the Montalbano books, it's almost certainly this one. A(n apparent) mob hit in a Potter's Field (effectively unmarked graves) leads Montalbano on a Judean goose chase that sees him interacting with Dons and academics. Published in Italian in 2008, it's almost like a rewrite of The Terracotta Dog but with more dialog than history. For my money, that means it doesn't rate quite as high; but then, I'm not like other girls.

22) How Long Til Black Future Month? (N.K. Jemisin)

Reading the story summaries on Wikipedia conjured a feeling or memory in my brain for almost every one of the stories in this collection, which I kind of wasn't expecting given the lifetime I feel like I've lived since I read it early in 2021. I think the thing I said at the time to people was that it was quite good, but it does feel like Jemisin really excels at the novel (or, perhaps more accurately, trilogy) length. That's probably true. It's also true that the broad range of genres Jemisin tackles here within speculative fiction is exciting, considering what she is capable of when working in longer form.

21) Backflash (Richard Stark)

Parker is the kind of noir protagonist I can get behind, even if I haven't read a ton like him: steely, ready to kill, but mostly interested in getting the job done. In Backflash, the job is robbing a casino boat for an anti-gambling politician. I'm curious about continuing my mystery tour after Carolyn and Andrea grabbed my heart and my head in 2021. I don't know if it will be soon, but Stark's Parker is definitely going to rattle around until I get to him eventually. More on No! No Buzz.

20) The Colorado Kid (Stephen King)

Stephen King at his Most, in some ways. A mystery from the perspective of a new newspaperwoman, with the state stamp on a pack of cigarettes as the central complicating factor. It turns out to be nothing exceptional except in the ways it isn't; there's genuine ambiguity and ambivalence in this in ways I rarely associate with King, and a curbed storytelling impulse that instead focuses on inessential relationships.

19) The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (Fritz Lieber)

Leiber Does Lovecraft. Specifically, the Horrible Document version of Lovecraft. It's no Our Lady of Darkness, but what is. Pretty good, from what I remember.

18) Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (Malm)

My main memory of this is that it's the best of the pamphlets in Verso's coronavirus series (excluding Dean Spade's Mutual Aid, which I don't know if is technically in the series but it far, far outstrips the rest), and that it gets a little Lenin Bro-y in bits. Plenty of salient points throughout, though.

17) The Deep (Rivers Solomon)

Inspired by a clipping. song about mermaids who were descendants of the slaves tossed overboard in the Middle Passage, The Deep is about the one of them who remembers and the toll that takes. Like Sorrowland, it's about flight from a supposedly utopian community to find the fucked up reality of the outside world. It's also about care for the individual and care for the collective, and how those things can come into conflict without any conflict rearing its head. And it's about cool mermaid shit. So it's good.

16) The Visitors (Clifford D. Simak)

Obelisk aliens land in Simak's beloved landscape: a picturesque midwestern small town (probably in Wisconsin). Newspapermen try to piece it together. The aliens are Roadside Picnic levels of inscrutable. They're also metaphors for industrialization. It's quite good.

15) Cemetery Boys (Aiden Thomas)

Definitely the best YA book I read this year, as a hater of YA. I expected this to be another thing I read and kind of enjoyed, but the ending really caught me off guard. The story of a young trans brujo whose culture doesn't quite accept him and whose attempt to prove himself goes awry when he summons the wrong ghost. It's kind of the thing I might recommend for people that aren't in the headspace to read the density of Summer Sons or the visceral heartwrenching of Sorrowland, but want some version of their themes and storytelling polished, like a rock, in the editorial and publishing tumbler of a book marketed as Young Adult.

14) October (China Miéville)

An early-in-the-year read, and (I believe?) the only one of Miéville's books (excepting his dissertation) that I hadn't read previously. An account of Russia's revolution(s) written in a really solid literary nonfiction style, I was most impressed by his acknowledgment of the failures on the part of the revolution to respect the anarchist cadre. Probably a lot of things to say about this, but I mostly remember appreciating the verve with which it was told, Miéville's incomparable ability to focus in on particular details and resonances, and the feeling of reading a pop history that might not exactly reflect my poltics but didn't outright disagree with them from the jump.

13) The Housekeeper and the Professor (Yoko Ogawa)

I fell in love with The Memory Police last year, and finally saw another Ogawa book cross my path this year. On some level, I think I might like this better. The story of a single mother who works as a housekeeper to a mathematics professor who suffered a traumatic brain injury which means his short term memory ends after 80 minutes, this is a decidedly non-genre take on disability and care work and the beauty of math and the beauty of language. I kind of adored it.

12) The Dead Father (Donald Barthelme)

This is the book that got me to start No! No Buzz near the end of this year. It's an interesting bit of experimental fiction, and I'm curious to read more Barthelme because so much of my reading has been of the fairly light variety, and there are things here that challenged me (and others I found challenging). Anyway I said what I wanted to say in the video.

11) The Only Good Indian (Stephen Jones)

Among the best horror novels I've ever read, definitely, The Only Good Indian is about four men who commit a crime that comes back to haunt them. It fits in the model of John Carpenter, to me, as a powerful example of homosociality in horror. That Carpenter was heavily influenced into this by John Ford, the Western film director, is an irony not lost. With powerful scenes of men expressing emotions, genuinely fucked up moments of horror, and an unflinching look at historical atrocity, it's another one I feel really confident calling special.

10) The One-Straw Revolution (Masonobu Fukuoka)

A good chunk of the reading I did this year was in preparation for some Island Demeter games that didn't quite pan out as I'd hoped, and this sort of memoir, sort of philosophy, sort of farming polemic was one of them. It tells of Fukuoka's experiments in what he sometimes calls Do Nothing Farming, where he cultivated land without use of any plows and, in doing so, invented the seed bomb. The technicals were a little beyond my comprehension, but his productive nihilism really struck a chord with me.

9) Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer)

This was one of those books that I picked up mostly because people just keep buying it? And I was curious. I really enjoyed my time with it. It felt a bit overlong and repetitive in parts, but the central thrust is really strong, Wall Kimmerer is an excellent storyteller, and it was overall just really positive. More on No! No Buzz

8) Princess Bari (Hwang Sok-Yong)

Hwang Sok-Yong is apparently one of South Korea's most well known authors, and I'm pretty embarrassed to have just learned that. I'm excited to hopefully read more of his work. This novel is about the seventh daughter of a North Korean family, named after the titular character of folklore, a seventh daughter of a royal family. Both were left to die and survived; both experience harrowing travels that clarify the world and reveal that the healing waters are the waters that give life to us and what sustains us. Princess Bari stands out to me as a story of the abandoned and vilified that unflinchingly tells stories of people who, despite being singled out for truly harrowing experiences, continue to act in solidarity. More on No! No Buzz

7) The Sacco Gang (Andrea Camilleri)

My introduction to Andrea Camilleri, and one I'm happy to have been my first. Published by Europa (unlike the Montalbano books, which are handled by Penguin Random House), it's a sort of historical fiction about a family of leftists called the Sacco gang who tangle with the fascist police and the mafia in the late 1800s (I think that's right). I think it's ultimately more clarifying of Camilleri's positions and interests than it is a historical document, but I have no problem with that.

6) The Secret of the Old Clock (Carolyn Keene)

The very first Nancy Drew mystery begins “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.” Which upended a number of assumptions I’d had, including her age (apparently she was originally sixteen, but was aged up in the 1950s rereleases, which I learned later were the ones I read). I really didn’t expect her to be driving. The mystery here is about a will hidden in an old clock, which a rich family denies exists so they can become richer. It’s one of the more fun entries in the series, and does a good job introducing Nancy and the style of writing (The Most Cliffhangers Imaginable).

5) The Shape of Water (Andrea Camilleri)

The first Montalbano book introduces the inspector and his crew, but most importantly it introduces Ingrid, the Swedish race car driver whose flirtation with Montalbano is one of the series' hearts. A mystery involving a politician found dead in a field notorious for Mafia-run sex work leads Montalbano to uncover corruption in the halls of power. Camilleri's prose develops a lot over the course of the series, but not in a good or bad way, necessarily; here there are a number of chewy, long sentences and a sense of history that get pared down in the future, and it's nice to see the development.

4) The Sign of the Twisted Candles (Carolyn Keene)

My favorite of the Nancy Drew stories. It does the will trick again, but the candles and spaces are actually really evocatively described. I believe this is by a different ghostwriter than the bulk of the previous books, and I’m unfortunately pretty into his way of keeping things moving while focusing on images.

3) The Mushroom at the End of the World (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing)

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's critical investigation into the matsutake mushroom is one of the best things I read this year. It's somewhere between academic tome, journalistic travelogue, and extended personal essay on race and capital. Lowenhaupt Tsing embeds with matsutake pickers and buyers, examines the moment the undomesticatable mushroom becomes a commodity (in the air, shipping between Seattle and Japan), ruminates on the ways it refuses commoditization by developing a gift economy, and touches on the weird, cool world of fungi. Not just one of the best things I read; one of the coolest. It reminds me of Christine Yano's work on Hello Kitty or Nisei Stewardesses. Well told, straddling the line between popular and academic, thoroughly cited, and sticky.

2) The Old Drift (Namwali Serpell)

If The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu wasn't the best surprise of 2021, then this was. Different lists, though, so both count. I found Namwali Serpell through Transit Books' Undelivered Lectures series (see my brief thoughts on Preti Teneja's Aftermath from the same series, also in the other post, or my post from last year) and then her previous novel (this one) came by. I'm not in the practice of reading big intergenerational epics these days and thought I would bounce off. I really, really didn't. The story of Zambia from the late 1800s through the early 2020s, it weaves elegantly between colonial history, magic realism, literary fiction, and science fiction. And the thread is a sentient mosquito swarm. I really can't speak highly enough of this book.

1) The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri)

The second Montalbano book, and my personal favorite. Being early, it still has Camilleri's more yarn-length sentences rather than the drumbeats of the latter novels, and because of that it has more going on in terms of developing the history of fascism in Italy as a player in the present than, say, the punchy joy of a Cook of the Halcyon. With interwoven mysteries about a grocery truck, a mafia hit in police protection, and two World War II-era bodies buried in a ritual fashion, everything here propelled me forward and really cemented that I love this goofy series.

*************************************

Plus, some bonus rereads! (unranked)

How Much of These Hills is Gold (C. Pam Zhang)

As I'll say a couple times throughout this, a good chunk of my reading this year was inspired by the fact that I thought I was going to be running some games for Island Demeter; one was a Nancy Drew-inspired detective game that involved a farm, the other a Weird West cooking game. I still hope to run them. I reread Zhang's incredible novel in service of the latter, and it only redoubled my opinion that it is a really special thing, full of gorgeous sentences and complicated in the most bountiful ways.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (Temi Oh)

I started this year on my third reading of Do You Dream of Terra Two?, a fact I would have called auspicious if I didn't have this year. It's still an exceptional thing.











Tuesday, April 12, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 1: 2021 Books edition)

36) My Annihilation (Fuminori Nakamura) (2022)

A mystery about identity, electroshock therapy, subliminal messaging, and revenge. I was not fond. More on No! No Buzz

35) Grievers (adrienne marie brown)

I have not been a fan of adrienne marie brown's writing since reading Emergent Strategy. I think this book is clunkily written. (way too much) More on No! No Buzz

34) Everybody has a podcast (Except You) (The McElroys)

Maybe it's my fault for having started over a half dozen podcasts already, but I found this book pretty useless. Which is fine. They're fine to listen to talk. Honestly this short post is way more useful, however many years later.

33) Ida B. the Queen (Michelle Duster)

A sort of YA biography of Ida B Wells written, I believe, by her daughter. I found it peculiarly unilluminating and weirdly centrist? It's been a while, but I don't have a ton of positive vibes about the experience.

32) An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed (Helen Tursten)

This slight mystery was super forgettable, honestly. The kind of thing that seems like it is playing on expectations that are completely alien to me.

31) Chlorine Sky (Mahogany L. Browne)

A young adult book-length poem about basketball and high school. It was fine.

30) Blood on the Fog (Tongo Eisen-Martin)

Eisen-Martin's third collection of poetry didn't hit as hard for me as his second (or even his first, honestly), but some of that is a headspace thing. The major theme seemed to be prayer, or theodicy. The man can still write an incredible line and wrench your head right around with an image. Definitely on a list to revisit at some point when I can process poetry again.

29) Comfort Me With Apples (Catherynne M. Valente)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's The Bible meets Wayward Pines. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

28) Detransition, Baby (Torrey Peters)

The popular trans book of the year, as far as I can tell, is about trans girls in NYC - one currently living her life, one who has detransitioned - who broke up. It's about family and bugchasing and queer community and navigating complex gender dynamics. I found it kind of insufferable, honestly.

27) A Spindle Splintered (Alix E. Harrow)

A slight story, in the style of those feminist retellings of Disney/Brothers Grimm fairy tales. From what I recall, it's Sleeping Beauty meets the multiverse. In all honesty nothing about it particularly stands out to me, in retrospect.

26) The Death of Francis Bacon (Max Porter)

I listened to this as an audiobook and know basically nothing about Francis Bacon except the screaming saints, so I probably have the worst possible take on it. It plays in the same space as Eternal Sonata, though it's more experimental fiction than High Anime. I can't say that it did much for me.

25) Kill The Mall (Pasha Malla)

An overeager narrator gets a residency at the mall, and shit gets weird. Told mostly in book report-style summaries, it has heavy "critique of consumerism" (as opposed to capitalism) vibes, which I generally find offputting. The hair that sprouts from the narrator's tongue, that floods the mall, that mind controls people? That part I was very cool with.

24) Remote Control (Nnedi Okorafor)

Sankofa (née Fatima) is a fourteen year old girl who, after a seed dropped from the sky on her favorite tree, gained power over death. She wanders Ghana looking for the seed that was stolen from her, pacifying those who are at their end and sometimes killing those who threaten her. There's something here that I expect I would have appreciated more had I read The Book of Phoenix & Who Fears Death, which share a world, and there is a solid emotional throughline which connects technological expansion to colonialism and the ravages of capitalism.

23) The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (Chesil) (2022)

A Zainichi Korean is about to be expelled from school in Seattle. She goes to a cabin and writes about her experiences about her first expulsion, from a Korean school in Japan. A fuller thing is this episode of No! No Buzz

22) Victories Greater than Death (Charlie Jane Anders)

A big goofy space opera trilogy-opener about a girl who knows she was born with an alien inside her getting called up to duty in a galactic conflict. Like a lot of YA the themes feel sometimes insultingly on the nose. The action is mostly good, the emotional moments tend to pay off, and mostly it's just kind of there, honestly.

21) Colorful (Eto Mori)

A spirit gets a second chance at life after dying through a lottery system that puts them into the body of a boy who recently attempted suicide. I don't read for plot and even I saw the turn coming in the first ten pages. It's a pleasant thing that touches on, well, the things I just described, and it has lingered with me more than I thought it would after reading it.

20) Matsutake Worlds (Faier & Hathaway, eds)

The only academic book I read this year, and I did so under the impression it was something similar to Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World rather than an essay collection (she is a member of the Matsutake Worlds Research Group that put this together and a contributor). I can't say I fell in love with it, or that it was equally compelling the whole way through, but I am glad I read it and hope I do more reading like it (in format if not in content) in the near future).

19) Rabbits (Terry Myles)

A spinoff of a podcast with aspirations of being one of those popular postmoderns, most obviously The Crying of Lot 49 without any of the fun shit (or pretension, if you dislike it). A gamer gets caught up in an Alternate Reality Game called Rabbits which is kind of like Michael Douglas' The Game, but more speculative by the end. I organized this list around this book, because it needed to be dead center. Neither good nor bad, just there and readable.

18) Aftermath (Preti Taneja)

Transit Books' Undelivered Lecture series is cool. This book was really complicated to read. More on No! No Buzz.

17) The Last Fallen Star (Graci Kim)

I unfortunately found out this year that the Rick Riordan Presents books are kinda solid. The way they scream #Representation made that seem really unlikely. In this, an adopted young girl named Riley Oh tries to trick her way into magic and ends up leaving her sister on the precipice of death. The prose sometimes hovers at the edge of grating (to someone for whom the YA Voice has grating as a default, which I attribute more to editors/publishers than authors), but it manages to stay on the right side of the line and tell an affecting story.

16) Heaven (Mieko Kawakami)

Kawakami's second book translated into English in as many years is, for my money, better than the widely-lauded (not wrongly!) Breasts and Eggs. A slim volume about a young boy with a lazy eye and an unkempt girl, both 14, who exchange notes and philosophies on the brutal bullying they both face. The central conflict seems to be between Kojima's martyr obsession - she is unkempt because her mother remarried a rich man and is seeking to reflect her father's poverty and struggles and finds weakness holy - and one bullies right wing nihilism - he bullies because nothing means anything, effects and causes are decoupled, so the strong cull the weak because they are able. As a left nihilist I tend to read books as being refractions of the mode of production, every one of them capable of showing us how social relations are structured by the material conditions that underly them. To that end, this is a pretty successful one, full of what we might call (un)sympathetic characters who have recognizable motivations that speak to the ways in which society amplifies those motivations. Plus I think I remember the sentences being super clean.

15) Hao (Ye Chun)

A collection of short stories that I remember feeling pretty high on at the time that I read it, but which seems to have slipped away from with a lot of other things from this year, among them my ability to communicate with loved ones. Which is relevant, I guess, because the titular story is about a grad student who suffers a stroke and as a consequence can only say Hao, meaning good or well. I remember, vaguely, that Ye's writing has a kind of honest lyricism. I remember also that none of the stories felt extraneous or lacking in emotional weight. I wish I could remember more.

14) A Country of Ghosts (Margaret Killjoy)

I keep meaning to read more Killjoy, and this one somewhat suffers from my general dislike of Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Which is mostly about style, to be clear. I did quite like this despite that for other reasons, though. More on No! No Buzz.

13) Velvet Was the Night (Silvia Moreno-Garcia)

This was probably the novel I was most disappointed I didn't like more, given how brutally hard I fell for Mexican Gothic in 2020 and how much of 2021 was defined by me finally exploring mysteries as a genre. I think in part that's because this book relies a lot more on character work, the aspect of Moreno-Garcia's writing I find the weakest, and probably just timing. The story of Elvis and the missing girl never really clicked for me. Which doesn't mean it isn't great; Moreno-Garcia is still an impeccaple stylist and genre chameleon, and can work her way through a sentence and a scene in a way I find joyous and surprising. Maybe on the reread.

12) Small Things Like These (Claire Keegan)

A morality tale in the Dickensian tradition that takes on a particular kind of systemic abuse of women in Ireland. All of the pieces are there for me to have not enjoyed this. I did, though. Quite a bit. More on No! No Buzz.

11) Folklorn (Angela Mi Young Hur)

I meant to read more Erewhon books this year, but. I'm glad I read this one at least. A woman at an Antarctic Research Station sees a ghost. The bulk of the novel traces her through her feelings of being haunted by folklore. It's an enjoyable read, full of melancholy and serious inquiry.

10) I'm Waiting For You (Bo-Young Kim)

A collection of four short stories, where the middle two are linked and the first and final are linked. The bookends are about a couple who use space travel as an attempt to time travel to meet each other, the first from one perspective, the final from the other. The middle stories are about gods and reminded me a lot of Ryu Mitsuse's 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights. Maybe the only genuinely novel piece of SF I read this year.

9) The Swimmers (Julie Otsuka) (2022)

This book is pretty special, I think? More about it (and the ways it shifts perspective) on No! No Buzz. The rough idea: an underground pool develops a crack in it. An older Japanese woman's senility progresses.

8) The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu (Tom Lin)

Maybe the best surprise of 2021? I picked it up because I'm (theoretically) running a Weird West game for Island Demeter and because I wanted it to sell. The story of a man getting revenge across the West, it isn't quite as much of a standout as How Much of These Hills is Gold but it did, for me, capture and convey some really striking images of blinding landscapes and circuses and moments of action. The kind of book I found real joy in reading on a scene-level, which is pretty rare for me.

7) The Animorphs: The Visitor (K.A. Applegate)

A graphic novel adaptation of the second book in The Animorphs. H approved. I was genuinely happy to see that they got an artist who was not just willing to explore the horror of the transformations, but seemed excited about them. The best body horror I've read in years.

6) Under A White Sky (Elizabeth Kolbert)

Elizabeth Kolbert is new to me - as is most popular science, which I have been cursed to get into since becoming a cooking nerd - but I thought this journalistic travelogue of the anthropocene was well put together and engagingly written. Kolbert tells a handful of stories of travels to significant sites, whether of water rehabilitation, underground lake species preservation, CRISPR lab or atmospheric engineering facility, and walks through what people are doing in the face of, and against, the rapid acceleration of human-propelled climate change. She picks interesting stories to tell and tells them well, which is nice.

5) The Cook of the Halcyon (Andrea Camilleri)

In the second-to-last Montalbano book, Camilleri goes full Bond and Montalbano fucking hates it. A really good, though coincidental, precursor to Riccardino, these two books closing the door on an Inspector I kind of fell in love with this year felt really gratifying.

4) Summer Sons (Lee Mandelo)

Slow burn queer Appalachian street racing horror in the academy. It caught the horror of medium-sized college town perfectly, in my experience, although I'm not from Appalachia or anywhere near. Mandelo's style can be a little dense at times and it took me almost a hundred pages to really dive in, but once I did it held me revenant-tight until the very satisfying ending.

3) My Heart is a Chainsaw (Stephen Jones)

The best Scream since 2 (I mean the second season of the TV show, obviously). Small town metafictional horror with an excellent ending and a genuinely excellent protagonist that also happens to be really smart about horror film and convey that in a way that is believable from a protagonist who is of high school age? A special book, honestly.

2) Riccardino (Andrea Camilleri)

Montalbano's final mystery, written some decades ago and lightly revised not incredibly long before Camilleri passed. It's pure metafiction, with Camilleri pitting himself as Montalbano's ultimate antagonist and collaborator. The writing feels (appropriately) somewhere between the early Montalbano books, with their dense depictions of history and food, and the later books that read breezily and imply much more than they say. Both styles work for me surprisingly well, and seeing both ends represented as Montalbano says goodbye was a real pleasant surprise. With an ending on par with Calvino (I assume, never having read him) or Borges, it made me happy to have fallen in love with this series in this particular year.

1) Sorrowland (Rivers Solomon)

I fucking adore this book. The Deep didn't quite hit for me, but this story of a young albino Black woman who escapes from her utopian cult with her twins and discovers love and superfungal powers absolutely fucking wrecked me. It does my favorite thing in the world - utilizing the flow and signifiers of genre fiction to address complex, systemic realities - so well that I still kind of don't believe it can possibly be as good as I remember. It also does my actual favorite thing (putting words into sentences on a page in ways alternately compelling, evocative, frustrating, and reflective) excellently. Genuinely masterful.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bee's Birthday Gifts: A History, with Links

In 2011, I started a number of things. Very few of them are still ongoing. Here's one thing that is: Every year, for my birthday, I make a gift and put it on the Internet. I used to track these through Twitter threads, but I can't do that anymore because my brain won't let me tweet. It won't let me talk much, either, outside of the kind I have to do to keep a job. It's bad.

So: Instead, I'm posting this in order to document what I've done in the past, with an eye toward 2021's release and maybe even future ones.

2011: 23 (a poem)

The gifts began in 2011 when I recorded a poem I had written and put it on the Internet. Here is a video of that. I think it's very bad. It's about how I was convinced I was going to die that year because of numerology and some other shit that's really cringeworthy.


2012: Celebrity-Mapping: Valentine's Are Over (an album)

From 2009-2012, I would spend Valentine's Day chopping up pop songs in Audacity and speaking over them. Each year I produced, wrote, recorded and released an EP. As I was doing the 2012 EP, my computer was dying, and I knew it was going to be the last one. So that year, for my birthday, I took what I thought at the time was my best work, put it into an album format, and released it.

Four years later, I started another Valentine's Day tradition, this one focused more on the incredibly talented friends I somehow have than on me making dogshit solo. I'd highly recommend skipping this record and heading over to the Fuck the Polis! bandcamp and listening to anything off any of the records subtitled A Valentine's Day Compilation.


2013: Not 23 (a song)

A song I worked on, on and off, for a couple years and finished on my 25th birthday. I think it might still be the single best song I've ever written, but that's my taste I guess.



2014: The Haunting at HKE (a game)

In 2014, I played a now long-defunct mobile game called Hello Kitty Kawaii Towns with some friends. I ended up making a tumblr out of our self-described Hell Towns, and documented some of my own ideas in story form.

By the time my birthday came around, we had mostly stopped playing. I picked up Twine and turned our goofy explorations into a story about ghosts, rent, and Hello Kitty. You can play that if you'd like.



2015:  Play Space (& 3 Years in Film) (a game and a book)

My first 3D game; you walk around in a ballpit in space. An A Truly Blonde Child-ish track plays and balls click. You can see the moon. A roof falls in with chess pieces on it. I still visit this every once in a while, and for whatever reason I still find it peaceful. I made it in PlayCanvas, which I may or may not have used to be able to sneak some time in from the job I had at the time. I don't know, I still like it.



I also put together some of my favorite reviews I wrote for the year-end wrap ups I used to do on this blog and laid it out in a PDF I called 3 Years in Film.


2016: CoSCAD (a game)

I wrote most of CoSCAD (which stands for "Communist Society of Critics After Dinner," I don't know if that ever made it into the text) on a road trip back from Fantastic Arcade in a notebook. The goal was to create a library of texts from this society set 100 years after a successful Communist revolution in North America. The core characters were kind of revisionists, interested in prehistorical (e.g. capitalist) art and its relations, however tangential, to the revolution.

I only got one story in. The files are all gone, so there's no further way to update it. But you can still play it. To do so: use the WASD keys to walk up to the book on the table. Make sure to click in the lower right to get the game to full screen. The right arrow key will open the book/flip the pages forward, left will flip them back. The story's kinda trash, because I was trying to do worldbuilding and narrative through the voice of far-future academics in a wildly different society & mode of production that were revisionists. It was ambitious, at least.

Thanks as always to Jamie for the art.




2017: These Crowns (a dance)

I think this is fucking unwatchable, but other people seem to find it cute. I fell so, so deeply in love with Kesha's 2017 comeback album (after being stifled by Dr. Luke's abusive ass for years) Rainbow that year (and I continue to love it, honestly). I've also lowkey wanted to use this tradition as an excuse to film something since, I don't know, probably about the beginning. Setting up the two-camera (laptop & phone) angles was fun, editing them together was... not.

The choreography & execution are terrible, because I do not know how to dance much less plan one out. It was a fun experiment, I guess, and when I'm glad I can't commit to any form of expression or lane of interest I'm glad I can point to this and say "fuck you, as long as I'm breathing I will continue to make whatever and everything."


2018: Reading Games: A Personal Critical Canon (a podcast, now defunct)

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, I made a tweet with an image that said "1 like = 1 of my favorite pieces of videogame criticism" over a background of Ness surrounded by Mr. Saturns. For my birthday in 2018, I wrote some long pieces about some of the things I linked in that thread with the hope of turning the 44 pieces or so I had listed into a limited, solo podcast. My birthday gift that year was to release the first 3 episodes all at once.

Those episodes cover articles by Winter Lake, Liz Ryerson, and Austin Walker; I went on to highlight articles by Emlie Reed (from the still-missed Arcade Review), Aevee Bee, GameFAQS, and Zolani Stewart. I haven't listened in some years, and the Twitter thread I was basing it off of was lost to the sands of time (read: tweetdelete), so it's never coming back, but I'm happy I tried.

2019: BBBS (an album)

Over most of 2013, me and my A Truly Blonde Child bandmate watched Xena: Warrior Princess. In January of 2014, we dropped a record that's one of the only things I'm genuinely proud of as a musician: Xena Season 1 EP. In 2015 we teamed up again to record/write/produce/release an EP on the 4th of July called Let Freedom Ring. That one's less good but it has a few moments. It only took four and a half years for us to make another thing.

You can check the liner notes on Bandcamp for a longer thing about this record. It's definitely an A Truly Blonde Child record, but one that I did most of the work on (the Bonus track is all me, and is the music for the Island Demeter podcast; I think I did everything on Brain and Blood also, but I'm not positive). As a result it's nowhere near as good as Xena, but hey. By now you're certainly aware that a good end product isn't exactly the goal here.


2020: 32 (a poem)

For my tenth entry in the birthday series, and when my age was the same two numbers that I started with flipped, I decided to write a response poem. A bookend, of a sort, with the poem from 2011. It had been a long time since I stopped writing poetry; I had come out as trans & nonbinary; the pandemic was just really starting to settle in as a thing I was going to be navigating as a retail worker; etc., etc.

It's been about a year since I did this, but I think I liked it at the time and don't have any particularly bad/embarrassing memories of things in it. Which is definitely a first for a poem by me.

 

2021: Welcome to the City, My New Friend (a game)

 I made a roleplaying game about making friends in a city! This year has been bad.

 

Sunday, August 1, 2021

A Diary Entry Loosely Organized Around Thoughts About Inspector Montalbano

 At the beginning of this year, I started planning out season 2 of Island Demeter. Instead of the freeform feel of the first season, I decided to go with something way too ambitious. It's currently coming together, slowly. For the purposes of this post, though, what's relevant is that I started loosing preparing campaigns around some systems I found interesting. One of them was Rude Detectives, a game we've now run about a half dozen times and that I feel pretty positively about.

Sometime around the first session of Rude Detectives, I got it in my head that I needed to read more mysteries. I've never been a particularly huge fan of the genre, but mostly for lack of trying (and a deep antipathy toward police). What I did also remember early this year, though, by way of reading Terry Miles' Rabbits (a book that I think is pretty bad, all things considered, but which I did devour anyway and has for some reason stuck with me) is that I devour the worst kinds of mysteries; the ones with droll postmodern hooks and literary aspirations. It's the curse of falling in love with House of Leaves at a formative age and reading a lot of theory and cyberpunk immediately after.

Since I work at a bookstore, I grabbed whatever Nancy Drew books were lying around. Unfortunately there were two and I devoured them both in about a day a piece. I needed somewhere else to go.

Around this same time, I was seeing some success with the Prisoners Literature Project display I keep charge of at the store I work at, and was trying to branch out with different kinds of books for the display. I believe this is when I did some research into the authors we carried, and a used copy of Andrea Camilleri's The Sacco Gang landed in my lap. The book sounded interesting to me, so I chewed through it. I've been reading... a lot this year, and that was a while ago, but the things that stuck with me: it's billed as a gang of communists standing up to the mafia; it's a nonfiction novel; the writing style has the elliptical punch and brevity of a great headline, line after line after line; it opened me up to want to revisit Italian agitprop like Elio Petri's films and to want to learn more about moments like the Red Brigades and the Years of Lead; and it inspired me to look up more of Andrea Camilleri's work. All good things, in my book.

I didn't do almost any research about the Montalbano books, but I did want to make sure I started at the first one (since then I've read them wildly out of order, and don't feel like that's detracted much). Which, incidentally, lead to me taking a lunch break to walk over to Moe's Books right around when their union was recognized. I picked up The Shape of Water by Camilleri, a couple of cheap paperbacks by L. Sprague de Camp and Clifford D. Simak, and a copy of The People's History of the United States from the Prisoners Literature Project over there. One of the Moe's Books employees is my contact with the PLP, so it felt like a nice way to send a book and be able to say congratulations on the union.

I've read the first 10 Nancy Drew books, about a dozen Montalbano books, and seen the same number of episodes of the BBC release of the Inspector Montalbano TV show (each episode is either an adaptation of a single book or a handful of short stories, and they tend to run about an hour and forty minutes a piece).

You know: the last time I wrote this style of entry on the blog? I think it was the weekend I went to see a bunch of Alt Lit readings. I've since unpublished that because nearly all of those people turned out to be sex pests at the least, and because I hated the style I wrote it in. I know when I sat down to write this (what a novel thing, writing, to my brain right now) that I wanted it to be more wide-ranging thoughts on Montalbano in general, possibly in another old style (those old theses). Unfortunately these days my brain rarely works in any direction other than the total information glut, rambling expression of impossibly tangled hell. So here we are.

Detective Montalbano

Reading the Montalbano books as I am - at the whim of what comes in used, primarily from other booksellers who I think are expecting me to handsell their used consignment books - has lead to a lot of interesting juxtapositions. The one I want to focus on is my recent read of The Terracotta Dog, book two in the series. Over just a couple weeks I ended up reading five of his books. The Age of Doubt from 2008, The Dance of the Seagull from 2009, The Potter's Field from 2008, Angelica's Smile from 2010, and The Terracotta Dog from 1996.

The style difference between his books from the 90s (that I've read) and his books from the late 00s and on (that I've read) are kind of unbelievable. So unbelievable, to me, that I did that deeply annoying thing of bringing both The Terracotta Dog and The Potter's Field over to my coworkers and told them to open to a random page. The visual difference in the density of words per paragraph on the page says it all, to me. Obviously it says very little to anyone else devoid of context, so here I am trying to explain it some more into the void.

I've been basically borrowing these books like library books, so I can't do the thing here where I snap a picture and post side-by-sides (or type out representative passages) (or rather, I could, but that would  mean sitting on this piece for longer than I have any interest in doing). The long and short of it is that at the beginning of the series, the Montalbano books are a 2, maybe 3 paragraph-per-page series. By the end, a single page might have anywhere from a half to a full dozen paragraphs.

Or, to continue with the quantitative measures: in early books, Montalbano is surrounded by deputies. Catarella, Fazio, and Mimi are the ones who stick around; Galluzo, Gallo, and Tortorella fill up space in the earlier novels. That is: by the mid-2000s, the effective police force that surrounds Montalbano is halved. That may happen through plot contrivance (I don't know, having read them the way I do) or not, but it has an obvious effect. Half as many supporting characters means half as much space needing to be devoted to there whereabouts and motivations, or twice as much capacity to develop others. Roughly speaking, of course. I know it doesn't quite work out that way.

I point out these quantitative differences to get to an analysis of how that effects the act of reading these books, even wildly out of order, but I also know that being presented numbers with only a few words of context means basically nothing to me personally. So I'll come out and say right here: the difference of number of paragraphs and characters is massive. It's not quite the difference between reading, say, Proust and reading Chandler, or between reading Anna Karenina or a long tweet thread, but it isn't entirely dissimilar. Abstracted, it is absolutely baffling to me that the same author wrote The Terracotta Dog or The Shape of Water that wrote The Sacco Gang or Angelica's Smile. Actually reading it, though, at least to me, is seamless.

To contrast what I remember of The Terracotta Dog with what I remember of, lets say, The Potter's Field (even though the two end up closer together on the spectrum of themes and concerns than other juxtapositions might; it turns out my brain is my brain, as much antagonism as it might have toward me). The Terracotta Dog is motivated by a fairly banal mystery, where a secret cache of weapons is discovered behind a rock. There's a truck that stole a bunch of shit at a dock, a suspicious manager, Montalbano's ne'er do well friend Gege getting killed while in a car with Salvo (Montalbano's name to his friends), and some deductive twists and turns that make up the main plot. The central investigation, in other words, is filled with stuff that kind of doesn't feel important pockmarked with crucial character moments, like Mimi Augello (Montalbano's second in command) overstepping his station and Montalbano explicitly telling Mimi that he got Montalbano's friend killed by using police resources.

What The Terracotta Dog is interested in is actually a secondary mystery. Inside the weapons cave, Montalbano discovers two very old corpses. They're surrounded by a pitcher, some coins, a dog made of terracotta, and other accoutrement that I can't remember off the top of my head.

This secondary mystery is about the history of Italian Fascism and the people caught up in it, especially teenagers who happen to be in love at the time of war; it's about what it takes to disappear to the state (sometimes very little, it turns out, but done meticulously); it's about doing a humanities degree and how that hyperfocus can have repercussions down the line that barely ripple, and yet still matter; it's about complicity, people, trauma, desire, and death. It's also, very specifically, about semiotics (Umberto Eco's treatise on it is not so much a plot point as a leitmotif).

The Potter's Field is also about semiotics, but instead of the question of religious stories of awakening that are brought up in The Terracotta Dog, it is about the semiotics of Mafia killings. In The Potter's Field, Montalbano has a dream that the state has officially become run by the Mafia, and then investigates the killing of a man whose corpse was left in a field of clay. Over the course of it, he decodes certain messages, mostly revolving around the fact that Judas was buried in a potter's field (another name for a field of clay) after returning his thirty pieces of silver. The long and short of it is that it is a fabrication of a Mafia crime according to old codes, in order to implicate the Mafia.

I juxtapose these because of how similar the concerns and themes are. The organization of the state (or the black market) by one or two individuals, for instance. They way that organization is obsessed with a particular type of meaning-making through allegory and structured message. The ways that meaning-making fails, through action and inaction.

The real juxtaposition, though, is in the style. In The Terracotta Dog, the sentences drag on. The paragraphs take a half a page, or even two whole pages. In The Potter's Field, the sentences cut themselves off quickly. They might take a page, but more often than not they're a quarter of a page or less.

Which brings me to the seamlessness.

At least from what I've read so far, Andrea Camilleri's books have certain questions at their core that don't change. This might be explainable by the fact that he wrote them all over the course of the last couple of decades of his 93 years of life. But the wild style differences tell a different story, to me. There's a clear story of Detective Montalbano being worked out by Camilleri, whose interest in the political history of Italy through the lens of Sicily is glaring, over the course of his novels.

There's also a clear story of this series doing extraordinarily well, probably beyond Camilleri's imagination, and a desire to continue that success. But.

There's also a story of Montalbano, a character who struggles with the fact that he's a cop despite being involved in the 1968 student movement, who hates his bosses but is involved in one of the most repulsive institutions in history, who gives scoops to the communist journalist at the Free Channel and despises the Tucker Carlson motherfucker on the news. The Montalbano who, well. Allow me to quote Camilleri here, from an interview with The Independent

Inspector Montalbano

The most egregious crimes of the Inspector Montalbano TV series, to me (having watched six episodes, each of feature film length), are as follows:
  1. Montalbano is regularly seen eating and talking
  2. The food is barely remarked upon
  3. I haven't once seen Salvo sitting on a flat rock talking to a crab. I hope this is simply a later development.
  4. Ingrid was like "I'd like pasta con la sarde" and Montalbano was like "I can make that"??? Motherfucker Adelina made that and we all know that.
  5. The shift in point of view - from a tight 3rd person on Montalbano to including flashbacks or setup - is understandable in terms of making a popular TV show out of popular novels. The near-complete failure to represent Montalbano's internal dialogue sucks.
Here is a transition: the show's adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is damn near note-perfect. Each beat of the novel is represented in the show, from the discovery of the weapons cache to the conversation between Mimi and Montalbano about the death of Gege to the reveal of why those corpses were positioned in the way they were, in the room they were, by who they were. Note-perfect. But devoid of a certain history.

Basically every episode of the Inspector Montalbano show that I've seen starts, after the opening credits, with Montalbano swimming. Maybe there's a cold open, maybe there isn't, but he is almost always doing a freestyle stroke through the ocean in the first handful of minutes of an episode. It's an attention to detail to the novels that I really appreciate; the director is clearly interested in the way that swimming looks on television, to the way that this is an important aspect of Montalbano's character that isn't expressed anywhere else. He lives next to the sea, and with it. That is both worthy of being represented on screen, and worthwhile to represent on screen.

What's also worthy of being represented on screen is finding joy in food, or the relationship between a police inspector and his housekeeper that is fraught with class difference.

The history that the television adaptation of The Terracotta Dog is devoid of is all of the things that the book is interested in. They show up, in plot form: a big deal is made of the dog and the corpses. A good chunk of the episode is about how the central mystery isn't that interesting, what's really at stake is these two half-century old corpses. What is missing is the way that this is the real concern.

Let me back up. And acknowledge that we are nearing the end of this discussion, which won't be narratively satisfying. The things I write never are.

Here are the things I adore about the Inspector Montalbano show:
  1. Ingrid. Her actor delivers lines with laughter that really brings out her character.
  2. Sicily. The way shots of the island are full of particular architecture, or particular beaches, really works for me.
  3. The complexity, reduced. There's something about the way that the ending montage, over the end credits, recapitulates elements of the story. It reminds you of everything that happened in the acting
  4. The fidelity. There have been times that I saw a clip of the show and then read the book, and almost felt like I had fucked up. I thought I had read the book before but didn't remember the previous 100 or so pages, because the dialog is so particular and perfectly represented.
Here is an admission: I love movies that don't work. I am much more comfortable with the written word, because there's nothing quite like the failures of language.

But then, there's always the failure of adaptation.

Or the question of how long it takes to convey an idea.

Like, for instance: does it take a paragraph? A sentence? What's the difference?

Does it take the particular framing of a shot, one that slowly pans around a beach following a car? Or one that takes its time showing a labyrinthine house, only to disappear into someone saying "come on" who reveals a dead body that they don't (and can't) acknowledge?

This show - this 2-episode season where each episode is a feature film - wrestles with so many things. With shooting in Sicily, and finding locations that occasionally really work (and often don't). With who to give screen time to, in order to make an episode as compelling as possible while staying true to the source. With choosing what to adapt. It's all very obvious on the screen. Or, rather, it's all very messy, and all very comforting. I've fallen asleep while watching this show multiple times. I don't do that.

Have I just been writing to write? Yes. I'm so out of practice, and I chose this title before we even got to the discussion of the books. My brain is a tangled hell. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean a tight package of a post.

Have I been to be clear about the difference between a paragraph a page and twelve? Yes. Not because I think I have the capacity to write quite like Camilleri does, but. Sometimes it's important to lose your style, to engage in mimesis.

And sometimes it's important to talk about how in the novels of Andrea Camilleri, the focus on food is paramount. For instance: the books don't belabor the moment of eating, but they do revel in it. Even as they identify who made it, how it is a moment of peace among a difficult time, and so on. The show does not.

Just like it's important to talk about how the shots of the coastline, lingering, or the particular staircases, or the architecture or even the trattorias being represented on film are things that the books cannot do.

Ah. I'm tired now. It's 1am. I started writing this hours and hours ago. I didn't edit it, except in the process of writing it. I think, like that other post I mentioned, that this will be unpublished someday. I look forward to regretting writing it.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Bee's Top 10 Books of 2020

10. Stranger Faces (Namwali Serpell)

Namwali Serpell’s Stranger Faces wasn’t the kind of book that sent me pinwheeling off in a hundred different directions, excited to counter theses and research new avenues of thought. It wasn’t the kind of book that frustrated deeply-held assumptions and developed new critical pathways for me.

It was one of the purest personal joys of reading I had all year. Both to read it, because it is so full of delight and curiosity in the language, but also as an act of joyful reading itself.

A rough precis is that Serpell uses a handful of texts that focalize non-normative faces – from ephemera about Joseph Merrick to Hitchcock to emoji – as a way to theorize stranger faces. These are positioned against the "ideal face," which Serpell reads in ethical, aesthetic, and evolutionary traditions. In this juxtaposition, Serpell finds visual pleasure in the non-normative using the frame of racialization and disability.

I place it at the bottom of this list because I can't really speak to the arguments, I don't think, or at least not alone. Maybe in conversation I could, but this is not a conversation on its own. I read it for the pleasure of its tone, for the way it reads like an intimate seminar with a facilitator who cares, who wants to be engaged with. I read it because of how much it loves to read, and because I love to read, and I loved it for both the leaps it takes and the joy it radiates in taking them.

9. Pen Pal (Tiyo Attallah El-Saleh)

One of a handful of nonfiction audiobooks I listened to this year (including Oak Flat by Lauren Redniss and The Dead Are Arising by Les & Tamara Payne, both interesting books in their own rights) that helped me supplement some of my other reading. This collection of letters from Tiyo, an incarcerated abolitionist who formed an abolitionist organization in the 90s from behind bars, to (mostly, at least) Howard Zinn, is pretty engaging. Tiyo's analysis is sharp, his complaints quotidian in the heartbreaking way. And his voice is powerful, full of moments of pride and frustration and fierce love and occasional triumph.

The dude did some real organizing work over his life; not just as an abolitionist, but as a teacher who established a program to help prisoners get their GEDs. His documentation of that process is kind of invaluable; certainly not the only document that covers that ground, but unique in its content.

8. Disability Visibility (Alice Wong, ed.)

In the little black notebook with red pages that I catalogued the books I read in 2020, I wrote "Disability Visibility (Alice Wong) (unfinished)" after the first day I started reading it. I was convinced I wouldn't complete it; not because I wasn't interested or was turned off by it, but because there were so many things and something always falls away. I didn't even borrow it from work; I simply took it out with me on breaks, reading it in three or four five minute chunks a day. After about a week I struck through that (unfinished), because it was clear I was all in.

I don't have a ton to say about this collection of essays, honestly. Some essays opened my eyes, others had them shifted to the side. Some days I think that if I had a better background in disability justice I would find this quaint, other days that I would love it even more as a whole. I am no expert, though, and can only say that it impacted me both interpersonally and politically.

This year has, I would hope, reinforced to everyone the importance of mutual aid. This book helped me clarify the importance of disability justice alongside that. Networks of care are crucial, fragile things.

7. Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse)

When I blurbed this book for the store I work at, I wrote that "If Roanhorse keeps this level of lush worldbuilding, compelling character interactions, and strong narrative voice going through the rest of the trilogy, we might be looking at another Broken Earth Trilogy level of success." I stand by that: this book brings to mind Jemisin's epic in scale and scope, in delicate, serious interactions, in histories simmering just below the surface. It's fucking hardcore.

According to the jacket it is "inspired by the civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas," it tells the story of what happens in a holy city when a Winter Solstice meets a total solar eclipse in a society where a dead God has come to rise again and take revenge on their oppressors.

I've talked a lot over the course of these two lists about the prose of the novels I'm writing about (and I'll be talking about it more to come!) because that tends to be what I primarily come to novels for. I'm not generally particularly interested in plot; characters have grown on me over the last half decade or so, but they're still secondary. I read most things similarly; I watch movies more for images and their juxtaposition than I do progress along a narrative, I make music for contrasting sounds, listen to it for the ways it presses on the body, moment to moment.

Sometimes, though, the prose doesn't have to be brutally moving; sometimes it's good, but not particularly notable in turns of phrase or sentence-by-sentence construction and deconstruction. Sometimes someone comes along and tells a really fucking cool story, with really deep characterization and interpersonal dynamics that evokes brilliant images and is twined together with really smart themes and ideas, and that rules.

6. The Butterfly Lampshade (Aimee Bender)

Way back in 2013 I read and wrote about Aimee Bender's The Color Master, a book that still lingers in the back of my brain even as I explicitly remember almost nothing about it. When I picked up The Butterfly Lampshade, I knew to expect a sort of low-stakes Magical Realism (having forgotten entirely about the Slipstream genre with which I was so preoccupied back when I reviewed her last book I read, befitting of the total irrelevance of that genre) and wonderful sentences. I wondered how that latter would fare in a novel - I've still yet to read The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - and was excited to find out.

The Butterfly Lampshade is written almost in the style of a memoir. Our narrator, Francie, is a woman in her thirties who basically runs an eBay shop. She spends her time scouring garage sales and finding ways to zhuzh up items that are suffering not from uselessness, but only a little neglect and bad presentation. Outside of this, she hangs out with her cousin who she was raised with as a sister, erects a tent on her patio in which she can have memories, and occasionally visits her mother in the institution she has been in since Francie was a child.

The titular event references one of those memories which the novel revolves around: with her mother newly institutionalized, a young Francie is left with a babysitter until her aunt and uncle can adopt her. She develops a fascination with a lamp that has butterflies on it. Just before she goes to live with her new family, she sees that there is a butterfly that looks exactly like one of the patterns on the lamp, dead in a glass of water. She swallows it before the babysitter can see. There is a small pattern of this in her childhood: representations of simple things - a beetle, a butterfly, roses - become the presence of those things. Abstractions materialize, inconsequentially.

The novel is magical realist because it doesn't ask how this could be true or false; it simply is. It is good magical realism because something simply being does not preclude it from reflection, from inquiry, from interpretation.

We are talking about an Aimee Bender book, here, though. The what is way less important than the how. How she tells this story, the sentences themselves, are breathtaking.

I read this back to back with Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police, which was a nice double shot of that particular kind of mundane magic where the world is simply different, and the emphasis is only partially on that difference. Both are prose-first, with The Memory Police building a symphony out of fundamentally sound blocks and Lampshade luxuriating in fecundity. I recommend both of them, but there is a specific something to Lampshade that put it over the top, for me.

That something is a little hard to explain. I can only speak to it in very personal terms. The best I have been able to manage is: Aimee Bender writes like I dissociate. It's not, exactly, the way she represents interiority, or the way that the world bleeds between reality and surreality. It's not the point of view; Lampshade is written in first person, and in my worst dissociative episodes - which I've only learned to name in the last few years as being dissociation, but which certainly preceded being able to name myself as trans - I am in what you might call a close third; I've analogized it, to friends, as like being in one of those dreams where you are floating just behind yourself, watching yourself act, sitting where the camera might in a third person shooter. It's not, in other words, representation or identification, not mimesis or ethics. It's lyricism.

Aimee Bender writes the way I dissociate with words alone, the way that they balloon into short sentences, overfull. She writes the way sentences tumble over themselves, nonsensical but utterly coherent, on a rainy train ride home after a show. She writes like language has long been abolished, and all that is left of it is a love felt.

It is baffling to me that I read a novel whose prose I more admired this year.

5. Beyond Survival (Ejeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Perez, eds.)

Beyond Survival is one of those books that would either be much higher or entirely off this list if I had read it later in the year, I think. Although that's hard to say, because reading it fleshed out so many discussions I've had over the course of 2020, and it's hard to imagine not having read it exactly when I did. It's the kind of book that I don't really believe came out in 2020; not because January was decades ago (I promise that's the only "time is weird! Covid!" joke I'll make here) but because it seems like it must have been around for a decade or more.

Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Perez bring together a bunch of voices who have been active in the transformative justice movement to tell stories and share skills.

There are some stinkers in this collection, of course. As someone who found Emergent Strategy mildly insulting, I didn't care for adrienne marie brown's weird opening salvo in her current crusade against cancel culture much at all. But looking back on the table of contents, I can't say that I remember any others sticking out.

I'd have to reread Kai Cheng Thom's essay "What to Do When You've Been Abusive" to have further thoughts on it, but it stands out, to me, as an example of what I really appreciated about this book when I read it in February. Beyond Survival is a book that takes the task of transformative justice to heart holistically, at least as far as I can tell. I'm sure there are ways it fails in its particulars that I'm unaware of - having been part of a failed community accountability process a decade ago doesn't exactly make me a practitioner, much less an expert - but I really needed something that didn't simply reiterate that we should be better to people to personally understand the real remit and possibility of TJ.

I think it's worth it, especially for those - like me, earlier this year - who have some vague idea of what it would be like to live in a world where we addressed the harm and abuse done without in the total absence of the carceral state, but have had trouble finding a good resource on what that might actually look like.

4. FINNA (Nino Cipri)

I had the opportunity to gush at Nino about how great FINNA is over on Spectology, so you can always give that a listen. The Quarantine Digital Book Tour was very much me stretching my critical legs in a semi-promotional capacity, so for most of them there are issues I have with the book in question that I would include in a review that I don't there. I don't believe that's the case for FINNA.

Maintaining friendships after a relationship ends has been really important to me, especially after I failed to do so with someone I suspect would have continued to add a lot of wisdom and lightness to my life if I hadn't been such an enormous piece of shit. FINNA is so good on the topic of what it takes for that maintenance to happen; up to and including the fact that beyond the work, sometimes it takes some wild shit to happen that you couldn't predict or even imagine. Like finally knowing yourself and coming out as trans after years of studious denial, or a wormhole opening up in the IKEA you work at and some carnivorous furniture and pirate retail zombie escapades. Similar things.

I think in that interview I talked with Nino, vaguely, about the final sequence. I'm going to spoil it here. At the end of the book, Jules has elected to stay behind and Ava is struggling through the return portal to her world, dragging an alternate universe Nouresh along. The wormhole is collapsing, and she can see all of her alternate universe selves failing. Some caught up by pursuers, others valiantly trying and getting smashed by the inexorable multiverse, others simply giving up and crying into the inevitable end. She pushes through. It's a corny moment, described, because you really do need to buy in to the characters. I did, and found it to be one of the more powerful visual metaphors for anxiety and self-doubt that I've ever read.

God, what a good gay book.

3. Mutual Aid (Dean Spade)

After reading the first book in Verso's Coronavirus Pamphlet Series - The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective - I had pretty low expectations for this. I've known Dean Spade's name for a while, but haven't really engaged with his work. I liked The Care Manifesto right up until I didn't (or, to be more specific, until I realized that what I took to be a solid analysis of neoliberalism started showing cracks and eventually chasms as the authors basically reinvent Keynesianism for the millionth time).

I think probably just by ranking you can guess that my expectations were incorrect.

Mutual Aid is a book that should be riven in half. It is a pamphlet, a slight 150 page thing that refuses to focus. There isn't (to my memory at least) a moment of it that doesn't want to engage people new to the concept of mutual aid, people actively engaged in affinity groups and other practices of non-hierarchical organizing, and people who are being exploited by the non-profit industrial complex. It doesn't (again, in my memory) doesn't forget to include the possibility of every potential reader, fucked up or on point. And it doesn't split, doesn't fall apart, doesn't say nothing while trying to say everything. That is one achievement, which is enough. For me, at least. Not, apparently, for Dean Spade.

Because this book doesn't stop at presenting a theory that takes into account the broadest possible variety of practitioners. It actively engages with the practice and its pitfalls. Mutual aid groups can be shot through with burnout-oriented tendencies. Spade provides tools of identification and preventative care to avoid that. There are long sections on recognizing and combating cooptation, with relevant examples. It's a synthesis of theory and practice, of practical and comprehensive.

I think at one point I described reading this at the end of the year, after reading Beyond Survival at the beginning, as a perfect palliative to reading Emergent Strategy the year before. It's maybe a category error on my part to have wanted genuine political theory out of brown's book that was clearly marked Self-Help on the back, just above the barcode. But between Spade's pamphlet and the Dixon/Piepzna-Samarasinha edited collection, I felt like I actually got those takes on facilitation, transformative justice, mutual aid, and burnout-preparedness that were vaguely alluded to and dealt with, by brown, mostly in breathing exercises and advice for potential non-profit gurus.

I don't want to end shitting on Emergent Strategy, but I also feel like I've said most of what I wanted to say here. I guess I'll just sort of reiterate what I feel like I've been saying, and what placing it at this point of the list is meant to mean: This is the highest nonfiction book on this list because it's a triumph. There are problems in it, of course, ways Spade could have been clearer or engaged more deeply with certain aspects of struggle. But I'll be goddamned if I didn't find this book both staggeringly impressive and incredibly useful, and I really, really highly recommend it.

2. How Much of These Hills Is Gold (C. Pam Zhang)

Zhang's debut novel was the last one I added to any of these lists. Partially because it was the last one I finished, because it might have been the only book of 2020 that took me months to read. I say "might" because it was a long year, and there were definitely a few months there (let's say around March, April, just, y'know, theoretically) where I didn't read anything at all, I don't think. I picked it up in late October, I believe, and didn't finish it until late January. It's a hard book, in both subject and style. It's definitely the most rewarding piece of fiction I read this year.

There is, in my mind at least, this critical cliché (or dogmatism) about a book that teaches you how to read it as you do. I cannot think of any concrete examples, but the names Nabokov and Pynchon ring around in the back of my mind when I say it; it's the kind of book that asks that you follow the rules of fiction in general, but also presents you with a subset of rules that it guides you into following. I have an enormous soft spot for this. I love reading. I love reading within reading. I love it largely because I love to learn to read, over and over again, whether books or financial systems or interpersonal dynamics or the signs of failure or the way bodies unconsciously act in public space under different ideological commitments.

There is something to be said, though, for a book that demands you meet it. That offers no space for you to catch up. That does not say "this is how you read me" but simply "read me." How Much of These Hills is Gold is, at least in my experience, that book.

In the year XX62, in the middle of a Gold Rush, two siblings are orphaned when their father dies. They need silver to properly bury his body, and one of them nearly murders a bank teller. They have to run; they are already marked by the color of their skin. Structurally, the book tells the story of their wandering attempts to bury their father, flashes back to an earlier childhood where they were being raised by both parents, and then forward again to them meeting when they are older and deciding what their futures hold. It's a curious thing: described right, you have an obvious Book of the Month contender on your hands.

But then you read it. And it gives you nothing.

No pretty frame narrative that guarantees a happy ending, no pithy tumblr-adjacent slang to ground you, no in media res to propel you back to. There is simply a dead father and the whole miserable, freeing weight of that. There are simply two children, ready to do what they think they must. There is simply the whole structure of an imperialist ("pioneer") nation, each of its edicts and temperaments, weighing down on these children who only have bits and pieces of understanding. And every sentence bends under that weight.

It gives you nothing because it refuses to offer anything less than everything.

I want to say that there isn't a single bad sentence in this book, but that's a fairly meaningless statement. I want, instead, to say that there isn't a sentence in this book that doesn't build, doesn't produce more potential outcomes and thematic resonances and maneuver feelings, but that's not something you can say honestly having read a book once. What I can do, honestly, is say this: I opened this book five times, at random, and typed out the first sentence I focused on. One I omitted, because if the only context you know is that these are preteen kids then it reads poorly; another I included all of the lead-up because I couldn't help myself:

"Ba's face is torn between fury and fear as the red jackal drags Lucy to the door."
"A man couldn't grow rich on coal, or use it to feed his eyes and imagination."
"The parts she keeps are her weapons."
"She washes in the stream and considers the finger still in her pocket. Look at it this way, and it again resembles an insect. A talon. A twig. Just to see, she drops it into the mud. A curl of dog shit."

If you're at all like me, you might read these and vaguely think "huh." and move on. If you're more like me, you read the first six words, or maybe the whole first sentence, and decided that this is a bad way to experience sentences - ripped of context, unexplained - and skipped further to find that explanation. Unfortunately you're reading something written by me, Bee. And all I can tell you is that I found those sentences at random, flipping through the book, and even the ones that I don't remember the exact context for bowl me over completely.

Because the only thing this book has to offer is everything. The whole of itself, in each sentence.

1. Mexican Gothic (Silvia Moreno-Garcia)

I've written a bit here and there about how much I love Mexican Gothic (I may have even said it out loud into a microphone once or twice), and I don't know that I have a ton to add (here, at least; I expect I will come back to it someday and be aghast at how little justice I've done it). It's fucking phenomenal. The ending is one of the strongest I've ever read, in image, execution, theme, deconstruction. I love that sapient scream of mushrooms, that particular manor-on-fire.

I don't know that I've ever pushed a book this hard in my life before (even if you're not counting the rando customers I recommended it to) and I don't know that a single person who read it off my recommendation didn't like it. Which is wild. I am terrible at recommending things! My tastes are weird!

It's that good, is what I'm saying.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Top 10 Books (published pre-2020) of 2020

10. From Democracy to Freedom (crimethinc)

Certainly the most frustrating book of the year for me. But then I've never met a crimethinc product that wasn't annoying to me, so I expected that going in. It turned out frustrating because, even though I rolled my eyes at the prose often and found myself in fundamental disagreement with many of the arguments, I haven't been able to dislodge it from my brain. It works, I think; not necessarily in convincing me whole cloth, but in leaving that nagging doubt that there's more to be worked through.

Basically, the argument is against democracy; not representative democracy, but democracy. Including participatory. In its stead, they propose anarchy as the horizon of political thought and the practice to aspire to. What do they mean by anarchy? Sometimes I suspect they mean "good stuff, you know what I mean? Not the bad stuff." Other times they are more concrete, but those felt too far and few between. Affinity and autonomy, certainly. And there are useful critiques of participatory democracy in the book, ways in which it has failed historically, ways in which it can come apart theoretically, from what feels to me like a genuine left wing perspective, as opposed to crypto-right.

But then they keep doing shit like breaking Democracy down into it's etymology (demos, common people; kratos, power/rule) and harping on that kratos, that power. And at those moments it feels, to me, reductive; a world where there is no power together, only power over. Where all power is subjugation, and all freedom, all anarchy, is (as a corollary) free of power. Is freedom powerlessness?

They don't, of course, get into the etymology of freedom, at least as I recall. It's not from the Latin, so it's much less sexy; from etymonline: "Old English freodom 'power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance;'..." They would say, I think, that the critique of kratos is a critique of rule, not of power. But I waver, because in my reading that didn't seem clear at all.

And yet.

I remain frustrated.

Because these disagreements, as I read the argument, that I have stand just at the far edge of comradely, threatening to teeter over into foundational, constitutive. And yet this book won't leave my brain. Not every day, not every week. But the critiques continue to stand. And not just that; they feel productive.

9. Heaven is All Goodbyes (Tongo Eisen Martin)

It's been months and months since I read this or talked about it, so the memory is a little faded. But it was the first poetry book I fell for in like, a decade, and I think that's worth a slot on its own.

I preferred this one over his early one because, while both show the same felicity with language and Eisen Martin's ability to veer headlong into the descriptive absurd, the multiplicity of settings in this collection lend themselves to his style, I think. The free roam of labor and marxian interjections on fabric just go together, you know?

8. Dragon Pearl (Yoon Ha Lee)

Dragon Pearl is one of those unfortunate books where every time I remember something that happened, I love it. It's unfortunate because it takes remembering; for whatever reason, this book doesn't stick out in my memory unbidden. Unlike, say, the Machineries of Empire trilogy, which still takes up so much space in my head.

The comparison to Lee's major trilogy isn't just because I love it, of course. This book also follows a woman haunted (possessed, even) by the ghost of a soldier of a different gender; it also deals with hierarchy as represented by military rank and the pressures that puts on consent (though not nearly as graphically; this is a young adult book in the Rick Riordan Presents series about a girl who can shapeshift searching for her AWOL brother in space and getting caught up with a powerful artifact that can terraform worlds, not military science fiction about calendrical warfare and the place of mass death in revolution, after all); it also interrogates revenge and secrets and camaraderie. It's not exactly Machineries of Empire, but For Kids, but it's not not.

Which is why I can't help but have it in my top 10, and why I can't help but be sad that it didn't grab me the way that trilogy, which I once called my favorite of the 2010s (over Leckie's Imperial Radch, Okorafor's Binti, and even Jemisin's Broken Earth), did. But that's not the remit of this book. It's a much more playful, MacGuffin-oriented thing than all that, and I did enjoy it for what it was.

Plus, books that are fairly easy to forget make for better re-readable material, I'd imagine.

7. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King)

I have no idea how this book made this list. But I kept staring at it, and I kept cutting other things instead of it. And I got down to the last few and it made it on. And then I started arranging the list; I knew From Democracy to Freedom held that 10-slot, so surely this one was number 9. And then it just kept creeping up. It took James fucking Baldwin to stop this weird little thing in its tracks, and even now I'm like…

From what I've read, I think King has three modes. The first is unhinged, raw King; The Dark Tower. The second is King going off, but reigned in a little; Cell. The third is fully reigned in King, succinct storyteller; Joyland. I've read a weird selection of his work.

The second variety is my least favorite (Cell might be one of my least favorite books of all time). It's King on his bullshit, but with none of the things that make him a special writer except for his inconsummate ability to tell a story. There are none of the interesting cracks, just the boilerplate. The third variety ranks next. I enjoy when King is hinged, a little cautious, clearly edited. He still shines through, but that shine doesn't overwhelm. The stories he tells in this mode stand on their own, but they also reveal something about his work. The first is my favorite, because love it when someone is on their bullshit. It's full 'Sutter Cane' King. Like he might bend the world to meet the fury with which he tells stories.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the third variety, closer to the second than the first. I don't know why it's on this list; I read so much good shit this year. I read Cujo this year! Cujo is certainly a better book than this, closer to that third King that I prefer. I read Okorafor and The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions! Why on earth is this story about a girl who gets lost in the woods and imagines getting advice from Red Sox semi-star Tom Gordon here?

I ask because I don't have a great answer. There's something about this fucking book that I haven't quite been able to put my finger on since I read it; the way flirts with fantastical materialism in its big threat, maybe, or how novel it is to take this really tight perspective and roll with it, almost never deviating from the simple horror of being one girl, alone, lost and trying and failing. Maybe it's as simple as a single scene, where an imaginary Tom Gordon talks about closing and god.

I don't know that it's a particularly special book. I don't know that it's something anyone needs to read. I do know that I really liked it, though.

6. The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin)

There was a period this year where I was obsessively playing Destiny 2 while listening to old roundtables on YouTube. Baldwin and Giovanni, Hughes and Hansberry, hooks and Cornell, Malcolm X vs James Farmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and Angela Davis, for example. It started with wanting to know more about James Baldwin, specifically, but of course it kaleidoscoped out into many other things, as often happens.

Near the end of this period, I found a full recording of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time on YouTube. It's read well, I think, and I'm surprised I hadn't found this book prior. I remember reading Giovanni's Room in, I believe, a course on the American Novel after WWII and thinking it was something special, but for whatever reason this is only the second thing of his I've read. More to look forward to, I guess.

Having now seen a number of his public speaking appearances, it seems to me - ah, but is it possible to even type those four words without hearing them in Baldwin's exact cadence? - that The Fire Next Time must be the most powerful distillation of the arguments he repeatedly returns to. That integration is not a goal but an established fact, for instance; or that white racism systematically dehumanizes white people, without mincing words on how it oppresses Black people. I wouldn't trust me with his arguments, though; the book takes less time to listen to than most tentpole movies these days, and PDFs aren't hard to find.

What impressed me most was a twenty-ish page stretch that starts right around the middle of the book, a long, reportage-style rumination on the Nation of Islam and centers Baldwin's meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed. Baldwin sparkles, here, the meeting shiny with detail and wit, the quiet asides as clear as a shout. Even absent the substantial contents, it's the kind of reporting that I have only seen in negative. You can see, in those pages, what every profile writer has been trying to do since, and all the myriad ways they have failed to live up to Baldwin's storytelling.

4 & 5. Carceral Capitalism (Jackie Wang) & Are Prisons Obsolete? (Angela Davis)

I had been meaning to read Carceral Capitalism since it came out (Wang is a friend of a friend). I'm annoyed that I didn't get to it sooner, but glad that I read it back to back with Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. The two come together like a one-two punch of theory. Wang does some theoretical heavy lifting, Davis historicizes. Wang captures the living advancements of an increasingly technocrat prison industrial complex while Davis delivers the ability to understand those developments

I came to them in 2020 for fairly obvious reasons. The uprising that developed over the summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd brought abolition back into the consciousness, and I wanted to press past the rapid deterioration of that conversation (abolish police to defund police, liberal recuperation of harm reduction, Obama's NBA strikebreaking bullshit, etc etc) and get, as the radicals say, back to the roots. Maybe it's ahistorical, but in my mind the abolition movement originates in the call to abolish prisons. That, coupled with a new friend's work doing jail support, ended up in an opportunity to work with the Prisoners Literature Project, which is one bright spot in a workplace that's been a bit of a bummer, and might be being threatened by the Biden administration's move to end physical mail to prisoners in favor of a wretched tech solution that only serves to increase surveillance and develop opportunities for profit.

This technocratic development is not isolated; Carceral Capitalism is very clear on this. It weaves high-level theoretical work with personal anecdotes about the ways that Jackie Wang's ability to communicate with her incarcerated sibling have reflected that theory in practice. In my reading, it takes that central concern - the ways that prisons are increasingly surveilled and developed as instruments of profit-generation - and expands it out to the general structure of carcerality in the United States, from municipal fines and fees to the problem of our concept of innocence as such.

Are Prisons Obsolete deals more in abstractions than personal stories; but then, it's a pamphlet, and it's written by Angela Fucking Davis, so. A family dinner friend described it as a good back pocket book; the kind of thing that's easy to recommend to someone interested in the topic, both because it's short and readable and because it's thoroughly on point throughout. I think that's a good, succinct way to put it, and that I don't have much to add that simply picking up the book (or finding a PDF online or whatever) wouldn't get you to faster and more elegantly.

Yeah. Read these books.

3. Book of Salt (Monique Truong)

The only reread on this list, although I’m fairly certain I hadn’t read it cover to cover since sometime around 2008 or 2009 in one of Karen Tei Yamashita's classes. Likely the one she ended with a lecture on food in Asian American (and other diasporic) literature, and how it comes to represent dialectically (not, I'm sure, her words exactly): as self and other, home and exotic, body and culture, past and future. Or, to maybe stray closer to Karen's original argument, food in Asian American literature represents both exoticization and assimilation, because it is both in the most literal way. As someone who recently came into cooking I have been thinking about that lecture a lot, and it inspired me to pick up The Book of Salt again. I'm so glad I did.

I've said it before in these little reviews and I'll say it again, but: god, Monique Truong's prose is gorgeous. Baldwinesque, maybe, full of sensuality and langor. This book, about (and from the point of view of) Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook, sells itself on its historical referents (Ho Chi Minh shows up! etc.) but the reality of reading it is that the historicity pales in comparison to the daily activities of cooking, fucking, drinking.

One might argue, reductively, that the point of the novel is precisely that: the great figures in history can do nothing - are nothing - without their cooks, their lovers, those they share camaraderie with. It's a good argument, I think, as someone whose work is all about reproductive labor.

But it lacks specificity. It's the why of a recipe, but not the how or with what. Which is what a recipe is.

I came back to this book with the memory that it said words about food in pleasing ways. I left it with the confidence to say that the words about food are great.

2. Salt Fat Acid Heat (Samin Nosrat)

I technically haven’t read Salt Fat Acid Heat cover to cover – I haven’t even cooked with a single one of her recipes, I don’t think – but I did read everything that lead up to the recipes. I don't know that I can give anything else, in media or in life, as much credit as I think this book deserves in terms of developing my ability to cook (with the probable exception of Family Dinner). But then, I don't really believe in singular influences.

In some ways this stands in for some other texts that I didn’t “finish;” specifically, the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook by Brinna B. Sands and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. The three of these together sort of encapsulate my journey through cooking in 2020, but Salt Fat Acid Heat is the one I think I can both claim comfortably to have read through and the one that I actively reference in my head when thinking technique.

The most common thought, of course, is in reference to properly salted pasta water, which should taste like your memory of the ocean. Not briny, waves crashing, but not actually (anywhere near) the actual salinity of the Pacific. The reason this book is so effective is because of how Nosrat doesn't just give you that useful metric, but how cleanly she explains it.

The short, non-scientist version of it goes something like this: salted water actually helps retain nutrition, color, and flavor in vegetables, for instance, because it limits the amount of diffusion. Properly salted water actually reintroduces diffusion in the opposite direction, so that whatever is boiling is absorbing salt from the water as it does. This makes it better because salt doesn't just taste salty; it helps us taste things in the first place. Nosrat is obviously not the first person to explain this - as far as my research has gone, I think McGee is still the Bible here, although much of his writing has been updated on - but she's among the clearest and most practical (Alton Brown's in there too, and I'm pretty sure all of these people are Republicans or, at best, liberals, which I've been meaning to write an Always Bee Cooking about for over a year now and haven't… eventually, I swear it).

It's been a bad year for living, in a lot of ways, but for me it was a  year of really digging into cooking and baking, and for that I have Samin Nosrat to thank, at least partially. And hey, can I recommend cooking? It's nice.

1. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (Temi Oh)

You could argue that what I said about Book of Salt above is a lie: technically, I also reread Do You Dream of Terra-Two? in 2020. But I also read it for the first time in 2020. Yeah. I read it twice in one year. I’m currently reading it again as I write this. Prior to Book of Salt, I have no idea when the last time I reread something was. I doubt I’ve read the same book three times since back in the days when I reread the first three Harry Potter books a dozen times each in a single summer, waiting for the fourth one to come out.

There's a moment in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? where one of the six teenagers - chosen from some 500 candidates over the course of years of schooling - lounges in the crew quarters of the spaceship that they are in that is on a 23 year long journey to a near-identical planet called Terra Two, lacking only intelligent life in comparison to Earth, pulls out a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone written in Latin. She's a polyglot, and it reminds her of home, and it is the moment where the Earth disappears from their view and her homesickness begins. It is a strange moment to read in 2020, when people have finally caught up to the fact that Rowling is a miserable reactionary transphobe. In one of two episodes of Spectology I did with Adrian on the book late last year, he mentioned that the book functions as a sort of surreptitious critique of not just Potter, but the British genre of school stories. If you want my fuller thoughts on the book, I'd point you to those pre- and post-reads.

One thing I can do here that doesn't work in the conversational podcast format, though, is cite some stuff. Unfortunately I've given away every copy I've read previously (and then some), so I don't have a book that's marked up. A random passage I read yesterday, though, contained two bits that I thought really define something particular about my complicated and weirdly complete love for this book. First, a sentence:

"The metal was cold like space was cold."

I love the prose in this book. I mean that in a very different way than I usually mean that statement. Usually, when I say that, it is because I love the tangle, the weave, the deft undercutting of language as supposedly-spoken. I long for words that tumble over each other and trip while they sing and snarl, sharp as canines when they gnaw ideas. At a glance, this is none of these. It is childish observation, repetition meant to Convey Information. It is young adult, all concerned with Reader Comprehension, none with the dense thicket of interiority.

At a glance, it's an example of why I should hate this book. It has none of the (alleged; I've never read them) poetry of Hemingway or Carver, none of the subtle rage of McCarthy. What it does have, though, is weight. Heft. It clunks because it is terrifying and huge and meaningless, except for the things it means to these characters.

Second, a page:

"'I just wanted to be alone for a bit,' Astrid said. 'I'm just grateful I made it.' Juno put her head in her sister's lap. And as she did so, she felt an inward release of pressure. The feeling of being home.
Juno and Astrid had been born three and a half weeks early. Their mother had told them the story only once, described the trauma she had suffered, the blood loss. The isolating terror of that night. And when the sun rose, their mother, delirious with exhaustion, had gazed at them--these keening blue creatures that the doctors had ripped from her--and said to their father, 'We can't undo it now.' Words that had frightened Juno for years. Her mother had been saying that she would never not be a mother. That when she laid eyes on the twins, the permanence of her new status hit her with a sudden and brutal force. She would be their mother until she died and even after.
'Did we make a mistake?' Juno asked. Astrid was making quick, sharp, gasping sounds, her shoulders shuddering. 'Are you crying?' Juno strained to discern her sister's face in the darkness. Her cheeks glistened. She nodded.
'Do you think we made a mistake?' Juno ventured again.
Astrid shook her head.
'Are you homesick?'
Astrid shook her head again."

With that same workmanlike prose, in the same scene, Temi Oh takes the concept of home - one of the novel's, and genre's, prevailing themes - and twists it four different ways. Home as comforting presence, home as place, home as loss, home as irretrievable and unmourned. It is astonishing.

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