Edgar's Book Round-Up, July-September 2019
Well, it was a wild fucking summer, but now the lows in KCMO are in the 40s Farenheit and I can stand to wear more than like two garments at the same time. It’s great.
On the other hand, it’s been a rockier road with reading, though I see now that I said roughly the same thing the last time I subjected everyone to my reading list. I also neglected to mention what else was on my plate while I was being underwhelmed by Eugene Thacker, so we’ll start there. As usual, book links go to Goodreads.
Cameron and I both counted Denis Boyles’ Everything Explained That Is Explainable towards our reading goals, because we actually read it aloud together. For full disclosure, the author is a close relative, which may color my opinion somewhat; if it’s looking like that’s the case, we’ll call it a plug and move on.
In any case, Everything Explained follows the production history of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica — but also touches on how the two prior editions came to be, as well as offering a delightful look at how publishing worked, or didn’t, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition, it provides portraits of some truly wild people; my personal favorite character, an advertising savant of sorts named Haxton, gave me a new goal in life, which is to have a question mark after my year of death. But we also meet Hugh Chisolm, the gentleman-scholar at the helm of the project; Horace Hooper, the American bookseller whose concept of progress and dream of a better world somehow lived side-by-side with a very contemporary focus on the bottom line; and a host of other oddballs, publishing magnates, power players, and just general assholes. It’s quite a world.
The major selling point, however, is Boyles’ style; while it can become a little lost in some of the finer points of how newspaper subscription worked in the nineteenth century, for example, it nearly always returns to a light, journalistic/raconteuristic tone that makes for very enjoyable reading. This is definitely a fun one to read aloud, too; the absurdity of some of the situations that arose along the Eleventh Britannica’s gestational period were a lot of fun to learn about.
Next up was Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, an epistolary novel (shocking!) about the deep friendship between two women, one an artist, and one a writer. The reader is provided in the very table of contents with several possible ways to read the letters; I went with the “quixotic” order, since “conformist” seemed like it might not really be my thing, and “cynic” felt a little on the nose.
Castillo is well-known as a strong voice in what she refers calls Xicanisma, and the letter-writer’s relationship to her background and her place in society is very close to the front of the novel’s concerns. But Castillo maintains a strong style, urgent and earnest in a very compelling way. The letters sometimes drop into verse, which was a delightful surprise. It is worth noting, too, that The Mixquiahuala Letters is in relation to Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, with which I am sadly unfamiliar. While in many ways I had the distinct awareness that I was reading a first novel — some concepts fell undeveloped, and the tension between the letter-writer and the recipient was uneven in ways that didn’t always make sense with where the characters were in life — it certainly speaks well of the rest of Castillo’s oeuvre, for which I will now be on the lookout.
I think it was right about here that I started re-reading Thomas Pynchon’s V., about which I have written elsewhere on this blog. But don’t worry! It’s one of my favorite novels, and I am always ready to bang on about it! I will return to it when I actually finished it; it took quite some time, and my reading of it coincided with the realization that if I bring my knitting to work, and knit on breaks instead of trying to read, I substantially reduce the temptation to yell at my coworkers when they start talking to me — which, unsurprisingly, cut into a lot of my reading time.
Which is not to say I didn’t read anything; the next one I finished was The Ecstasy of St. Kara, an art book from an exhibition of Kara Walker’s phenomenal drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2016. The works were partially inspired by a residency in Rome, and the bulk of the book takes the form of plates of the pieces from the exhibition.
I was familiar with Kara Walker’s work in the silhouette medium, as well as the public conversation about her massive installation, A Subtlety. I was basically unaware of her drawings, and the book served largely to make me wish I had gotten to experience them in person. Her technique, combining deep graphite and charcoal shadows, swirled across large pieces of paper, is not surprising in light of the rest of her work, but it is nonetheless a true pleasure to get to see them. Her subject matter is characteristically uncompromising, exploring racism, history, and power through a nuanced and highly individual lens.
The writing in the book could have been somewhat better — except for Walker’s own contribution to it. Her explanation of the thought process and experiences behind the pieces of her Ecstasy featured a beautiful balance of intensity of vision and awareness of when nothing further needed to be said. More than anything else, The Ecstasy of St. Kara left me with a deep gratitude: I am so lucky to be alive at the same time as this phenomenally talented artist.
While I had lucked into The Ecstasy of St. Kara during a sale at the museum store of the museum I work at, I happened upon Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh in a quite different manner: I got it on Kindle in advance, thinking it had already been published. (I’ve got a novel I’m trying to shop to agents, and Emily Tesh is represented by one such agent. My novel was not accepted.)
But it was a very happy accident indeed: the novella relates a quite tender romance between the reputed “Wild Man” of an English forest and the handsome new owner of an ancient house nearby. While this description makes it seem both fluffy and straightforward, it is neither; like any good fairy tale, it features a number of reversals in the characters’ fates, and offers fairly rich lore for its length. If anything, I’d have liked a little more meat in the third quarter; a portion of the story felt a bit once-over-lightly. But really, if you want a compelling tale of love, magical shenanigans, and, of course, really cool trees in the nineteenth century, I strongly recommend it. It had been a while since I read something that, when I had to put it down, I was actually agitated at having to stop, and irritable about not being able to read more right now, but Silver in the Wood made me feel like that again.
And then I finished V.
I’ve read V., I think, three times, if not four. Say three-and-a-half. But two (and a half?) of those times were almost fifteen years ago. In the interim, my memory of the novel had faded but my propensity to recommend it did not. I said a lot of what I would say about it in my previous write-up, I think. There’s usually more to say; in hindsight, the structure is a little ramshackle, and some of the characters could have been handled better, just in terms of me being able to remember who the fuck they are. But stand by my conviction that it’s a great fucking novel, and really, I’m going to stop there.
You’d think that would be a hard act to follow, right? I did, too, frankly; after being basically cranky that I wasn’t still reading The Magicians trilogy for some months, I was pretty ready to be let down by almost anything. Fortunately for me, I turned next to The Devourers by Indra Das, which was the exact opposite of a let-down.
It could have been: since its appearance in 2015, The Devourers has been a stalwart of lists of books you should read for various reasons — or at least the queer, fantasy-oriented online milieu I’ve sought out, which is kind of a lot of pressure. However, The Devourers is more than equal to it: the story takes place both in contemporary Kolkata, beginning when the narrator meets a mysterious, beautiful stranger, and in the Mughal period, and tells both the story of the narrator, Alok’s, relationship with the beautiful stranger, and of an encounter between a young woman and two shapeshifting immortals, which is given to the reader in the form of manuscripts Alok is transcribing for the stranger. Parallels are drawn between the shapeshifters and werewolves, but Das’ vision is something very different, both more monstrous and more horribly plausible in unexpected ways.
While I sometimes I quibble with Das’ style (he’s a Clarion graduate, and it shows in a propensity towards “the [x] of its [y]ing” and similar constructions, which seem to grow wild in Clarion workshops), those are quibbles at best. Das’ ability to balance the fabulistic with the visceral and horrifying is really something else, and the way he deploys those tonal shifts throughout the novel is truly masterful. That said, there are some moments that are pretty fucking gross (if the shapeshifters are like werewolves and werewolves are like dogs… let’s say Das reminds us repeatedly how dogs mark what is theirs), and the plot of the Mughal sections hinges on an act of rape. Das handles that element with extreme care, offering insight into the rapist’s gross rationale of his behavior, and the ongoing repercussions for the woman who was raped. In fact, his centering of Cyrah’s agency and personality throughout the section she narrates is really beautifully done, and Alok’s commentary on the Mughal sections provides some much-needed relief. I really cannot recommend it enough, if the reader feels up to the intensity of the subject matter.
I was beginning to feel, however, that I wasn’t reading enough, or wasn’t reading fast enough. So I chose for my next book something I knew would be fast, fun, and exciting: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
That may sound mildly ludicrous, I guess, but you have to remember: the book is about 40% bad black-and-white reproductions of great paintings, and no amount of layout fuckery can make Berger’s prose worse. It can, however, badly damage the reading experience, so I’d like to take a moment to wish a lifetime of inconvenience on whoever it was that decided to lay out this book this way. I mean, I get that it’s a fix-up of a TV series Berger worked on (which can be viewed here), but that’s no reason for the kind of bullshit going on here. Like why is the whole goddamn thing in bold face? Why would you do glossy paper if you were going to use shit-tier reproductions to begin with? What the entire fuck?
But to return to the topic: even that level of design shenanigans doesn’t dim the joys of Berger’s prose, which is an extremely conversational take on how to look at art. The first section is, as the author notes, basically a rewrite of Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”; the rest of it is, as far as I can tell, mostly Berger riffing on stuff. I read and enjoyed his Success and Failure of Picasso last year, so I kinda knew what I was in for, but it was still an extremely passionate, enjoyable romp, if a little unfocused. The final section, on the role of advertising as a factor in how we look at images of stuff, is really very prescient and highly enjoyable.
Around here, I think, I picked up a few things, and didn’t quite connect. So I did what a few friends have exhorted me to do for some time, and get myself the Libby app. I cannot praise highly enough the joys of it; the last two books I have to discuss here, I read using it, and I am excited to reconnect with my love for audiobooks. If you can, get yourself right with your local library and get either Libby or Overdrive if your library offers it.
In any case, the first book I got through this remarkable service was The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. The novel, which is solidly middle-grade, follows the adventures of 12-year-old Martha, whose Catholic school hijinx get her suspended. In exchange for admission the following year — which would be 1930 — Martha goes to work at the Sewell mansion, home of the fictional newspaper man, J. Archer Sewell, and his wife, the ostensibly-mad Rose, who lives in the attic. Needless to say, there’s some foul play at work, and also somehow a magnificent collection of paintings in Rose’s personal possession.
Honestly, I had gotten some wrong impressions about The Gallery, the foremost of which was that it was one of those novels about a 12-year-old that are actually for older people, when it is in fact a novel about a 12-year-old that is actually for readers aged 8 to 12, depending on the child’s precocity. This brings with it a certain amount of didacticism, but to her credit, Marx Fitzgerald handles it well, allowing young Martha the wherewithal to question her teachers about Christian misogyny, her surroundings about class and economic inequality, and the resources available to her to figure out the secret messages Rose sends her by means of paintings displayed in a magnificent gallery in the house.
And the ecphrastic passages, describing very famous paintings from the point of view of an artistically ignorant 12-year-old, were really the heart and soul of the novel. Marx Fitzgerald did a lovely job of capturing the kind of confusion and awe that characterize early encounters with art (or at least, those were some of my feelings). I will probably end up hunting this book down again when some of the children of my acquaintance are a little older, because it was ultimately thoughtful, sweet, and well-constructed.
My next romp was another novel aimed at people younger than me, though this one would definitely be for slightly older or less supervised children: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge.
Hardinge came onto my radar around the time her debut novel, Fly By Night, was released to relative acclaim in the mid-aughts. And like that first novel, Skinful of Shadows is set around the English Civil War (though in Fly By Night it was more of a fictionalized secondary world version of events, the source for the setting was clear), and follows a girl in precarious personal circumstances as she journeys through a fraught socio-political landscape peopled by capital-C Characters. Also, in Skinful of Shadows, Makepeace, the main character, can see and interact with ghosts in a number of ways, and this entangles her with the ancient, powerful Fellmotte family. There’s dark secrets, daring escapes, and the ghost of a dancing bear. It’s honestly exactly what I hoped it would be.
As an aside, part of my fondness for these two of Hardinge’s works — which I picked up largely because of the more or less vague early modern setting — is because of how much they remind me of Lloyd Alexander’s classic Westmark Trilogy. Those three books have been near and dear to my heart since fairly early in my youth, and still maintain that they are essential to understanding the grim ins and outs of history, to say nothing of the books’ magnificent characterization, gorgeously efficient language, and tight, smart plotting. Here’s a piece by Mari Ness touching on some of these topics. I also once picked a fight with someone on a Catholic culture blog about how Westmark and its sequels are absolutely essential reading for any smart young person, but that’s straying awfully far from the point.
Basically, what I’m saying is that there need to be more gritty YA novels set in the early modern period, or an approximation of it. And Hardinge provides, generously: like Lloyd Alexander, she doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to the horrors of war, or even more quotidian violence. But where Lloyd Alexander had a gift for a brief and perfect turn of phrase, Hardinge has a flair for the generalizing, and unlike many writers who try to make statements about human nature, she gets it right. And part of how she can get away with it is by means of worldbuilding that surpasses descriptors like “rich” or “deep”: her worlds have meat. They move and change and grow like flesh, and her almost luxuriant approach to language really aids in that endeavor.
In any case, that brings us up to this, the first week or so of October. I’m currently reading two books that I’m excited to look at in tandem, but we’ll save that for the next round up. As a kind of honorable mention, I feel that I would also be remiss in discussing what I’ve been reading the last few months if I did not make mention of the magnificent series Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, which gets into outfits like Fall Out Boy and looks in deep, deep detail at what made them tick, as bands and as cultural phenomena. I’ve been delighted by every single one, even the ones about bands I have never actually listened to in any meaningful way. Please do yourself a favor and check it out.