September 5, 2019

July/August Reading Recap

Well, I've certainly done a lot of reading since I last posted! These are all the books that kept me busy this summer when I wasn't writing or having family fun:

THE OLD DRIFT by Namwali Serpell is a novel that contains multitudes, and to describe too much of the story would take away from the joy of discovery. The joy (and pain, and question) of discovery is how the story opens, in fact, with a chapter narrated by a British explorer who's one of the first white settlers to "discover" the wonders of Africa. With much personality and prejudice, he tells of his life in colonial Rhodesia, including a chance encounter that seems to link together the fates of three families for generations to come. These descendants are vivid, unusual characters, and as Serpell weaves their complicated story, she follows the history of Zambia from colonial rule through independence and into the future.

This is a big, juicy novel full of difficult family dynamics, strange repercussions, historical and cultural details, and narrative quirks. I read it slowly because there was a lot to absorb, and I enjoyed stopping to look up the many unfamiliar words and references. It was fascinating to realize that some of the characters are real figures. The one source I avoided consulting was the family tree at the front of the book, because I found it more fun to wait for the story to reveal the connections.

Serpell is a great writer at both the storytelling and sentence levels. She delights in languages and wordplay, making her prose a delight to read. While the characters in THE OLD DRIFT often experience tragic circumstances, what sticks with me is the sheer pleasure of reading it. If this sounds like your kind of book, I highly recommend it.

→ In BECAUSE INTERNET: UNDERSTANDING THE NEW RULES OF LANGUAGE, Gretchen McCulloch chronicles how communication styles, slang, and other language elements have evolved with the changing internet. Her analysis is rigorous (but always entertaining!), grounded in historical dialect studies and a taxonomy of internet usage patterns laid out in a chapter called "Internet People". In that section, McCulloch explores the ways different groups experience the internet based on when and how thoroughly they came online, and how this relates to linguistic conventions such as punctuation usage.

I appreciated that McCulloch brings a deep understanding of the internet to her investigation of online language. Anecdotes about her own life as an Internet Person provide a personal touch, and comparisons to language developments from analog communication modes give weight to her arguments. McCulloch's insights are nuanced, clever, and frequently funny, whether she's charting the history of memes or explaining how emoji substitute for the gestures that occur face to face. This book is a perfect blend of informative and fun. I learned, I lol'd, and I learned how the meaning of "lol" has transformed.

EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes: Evvie is in the middle of packing up to leave her husband when he dies in a car accident. A year later, she's struggling with the isolation and shame of her non-grief, because she lives in a small Maine town where everyone knows her tragedy, and she's never told even her best friend that her marriage was terrible. Evvie can barely motivate herself to work, so to help pay the bills, she agrees to rent out part of her house to Dean, who's looking for a small town where he can hide from his problems. Dean used to be a star pitcher for the Yankees, but he was forced into early retirement after mysteriously losing his pitching ability. He moves in on the condition that he won't ask about Evvie's husband and she won't ask about baseball. But soon they're both breaking the deal and pushing each other to address their problems, help that is sometimes appreciated and sometimes a big obstacle to their growing attraction.

Evvie and Dean are great characters, and I was rooting for their relationship from the start. I appreciated both the lighter moments in the story, like the natural way the characters joke and make pop cultural references, and the heavier ones where they cope with depression and anger. The pacing is a bit uneven, and I was frustrated when some threads and characters were dropped for stretches. Overall, though, this is an engaging story, and I'm eager to read more from Holmes in the future.

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead: Elwood is on his way to his first college class when he's arrested for being a black boy in the wrong place at the wrong time -- Florida in the early 1960s. He's sent to a reform school that pretends to enrich its charges through education and work, but mainly operates on a system of abuse and deprivation. Elwood, who finds inspiration in the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., quickly falls victim to the school's worst punishments, yet remains convinced there's a way to overcome the injustice. His new friend Turner sees the world as it is and tries to protect Elwood from his dangerous optimism.

This novel is beautifully written but hard to read. From the beginning, the structure warns the reader to dread what's coming, while Elwood remains horribly unaware. Whitehead doesn't dwell on the most violent moments, but they loom large in my impression of the book, to the point that I was surprised to look back and see how few pages were spent on certain scenes. A similar efficiency makes the whole short book both more gripping and more upsetting. The story culminates in a powerful, satisfying conclusion that's going to stay with me.

I LIKE TO WATCH: ARGUING MY WAY THROUGH THE TV REVOLUTION by Emily Nussbaum presents a selection of reviews, profiles, and essays from Nussbaum's career as a television critic. In the introduction, she argues that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was as groundbreaking and important a show as The Sopranos but wasn't given the same type of respect and acclaim. The rest of the book's contents expand on this idea, pushing at the boundaries between what's considered prestige and what's considered junk and examining the gender and genre biases underlying the categories.

I enjoyed the thought and nuance in all the work Nussbaum presents here, from brief show reviews to detailed looks at a creator or topic. Her perspective on shows such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Leftovers both aligns with and deepens my own opinions. Through her largely negative but fascinating review of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I learned that the main character's career draws on the real life of Joan Rivers (who Nussbaum also profiles in a separate piece). In a long essay written specifically for the book, Nussbaum searches her soul and viewing history to grapple with the question of what to do about good art by creators who are terrible people, in particular men who commit sexual abuses.

I'm an avid TV viewer who's watched about half the shows discussed and has some knowledge of the rest. I recommend this collection to others with a broad enthusiasm for viewing and contemplating TV.

CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert: In 1940, after Vivian fails out of Vassar, her parents send her to New York City to live with her Aunt Peg. Since Peg owns a theater company and lives surrounded by actors and showgirls, this is hardly a punishment. Vivian quickly makes herself useful by putting her sewing talents to work designing costumes for the company's lowbrow, formulaic shows. Just as quickly, she dispenses with her virginity. Once that's taken care of, Vivian happily joins her new showgirl friends on their nightly sprees of drinking and sex. Eventually they all have to save some of that energy for the theater, because a famous British actress shows up as a war refugee, spurring Aunt Peg to create a new show that could actually be a hit.

Vivian narrates this novel retrospectively, from a point seventy years later, which allows her to remark on her shallow, spoiled reactions to the events she experienced as a young woman. Despite the addition of this self-aware reflection, she remained fairly uninteresting to me, so it was often hard to stay engaged with the story, especially when Vivian was alone. I enjoyed the other characters, though since they're all larger than life, I wondered if they were meant to evoke the comic play the story revolves around. Gilbert writes great sentences and scenes, full of sly humor, but I found this novel structurally weak. It's more a series of events than a plot, scaffolded by a frame story that doesn't really pay off. My recommendation goes instead to Gilbert's earlier novel, the masterfully crafted THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Public Domain Review presents a collection of X entries from alphabet books written before the discovery of x-rays: "As a figure of note, you might hope it would be your epic deeds accomplished that would lead to your name being uttered by students for millennia to come -- not for the coincidence of the tricky letter with which your name began. But so it was for the Persian king Xerxes, who in the field of nineteenth-century alphabet books achieved what he could never quite achieve in fifth-century BC Athens, that is, domination."

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