The Westing Game (which I read and loved as a kid) opens with an intriguing set-up: there’s a new five-story apartment building on Lake Michigan, and its 6 apartments (and 3 business/retail spots) are rented to a list of pre-selected tenants. The building has a view of a mansion, the Westing house, which is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years: its owner, Sam Westing, is rumored to be dead. But the tenants all (well, almost all) have some connection to Westing, and the house apparently isn’t totally empty: on Halloween, about two months after the tenants move in, they see smoke rising from one of the mansion’s chimneys. The next day there’s a newspaper headline saying Westing has been found dead, and a number of the apartment building’s inhabitants, plus a few more people connected to the building, are summoned to the Westing house. where they’re paired off, and each pair is given a $10,000 check and a set of clues. They’re told they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune: they just need to solve the puzzle to win the game.

It’s fun to read about the various characters’ attempts to figure things out, their false starts and wild guesses and missteps, but what’s more fun is to watch them work together, or not. And the mystery of Westing’s death isn’t the only weird thing happening: there’s been a string of thefts in the building, and then bombs start going off, so there’s a lot to be figured out. The narrative switches its focus from character to character, but Turtle Wexler, a smart junior-high-school kid who’s (understandably) grumpy that her mother has always treated her differently from her (beautiful and obedient) older sister, Angela, is at the center of a lot of things, in a really satisfying way. It’s hard to say more about this book without giving away too much (it is a mystery, after all), but I like its quirkiness and strangeness, how it brings together a cast of disparate characters in a way that somehow totally works.

I like the worlds and characters of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series a whole lot, and I like McGuire’s writing style: I mean, at one point in this book she describes how a skeleton “floated like a bath toy for the world’s most morbid child” (78). That said, this book was my least favorite of the series so far, I think because it’s a quest narrative, which made it feel both unputdownable and a bit less interesting to me. I mean, the mechanics of a quest narrative are pretty standard: a character or group sets out in search of something/trying to accomplish some goal, there are twists and setbacks along the way, there is a climax in which they fail (or probably more usually) succeed, and then things get wrapped up at the end. The nature of a quest narrative means that it’s pretty plot-driven, which is part of what made me read this book so quickly, but plot-driven isn’t my favorite kind of fiction. Still, this book was a fun read.

So, the plot: early in the book, a girl falls from the sky into the pond at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (which is a school for kids who have traveled to other worlds and then ended up back in this one). The girl, Rini, is looking for her mother, who was a student there. But there’s a problem: her mother is dead. The fact of her mother’s death is making Rini herself disappear, and is also causing major problems in Rini’s home world, which her mother saved from an authoritarian ruler. So several students (Christopher and Kade, both of whom are great/both of whom we know from previous books in the series, and Nadya, who spends a lot of time at the turtle pond wishing she were back in the river-world she went to, and Cora, a new student who was a mermaid in an ocean-world) set out with Rini to try to set things right. This involves a trip to a cemetery and the Halls of the Dead (where they hope an ex-student of the school will be able to help them out) and then to Rini’s home world, Confection, where farmers grow candy corn and the ocean is made of strawberry-rhubarb soda. The details of the settings are pleasing, and the advances and setbacks are exciting, and I like Cora, who proves herself smart, perceptive, and capable, even as she finds herself on a quest she never really signed up for, helping people she doesn’t really know. I also like the narrative’s body-positivity, even if it can feel a little heavy-handed, and the way it emphasizes strength through difference/diversity: “Everyone’s lives prepared them for something different,” Cora thinks, at one point (76). And of course, in this kind of narrative, that means everyone has a part to play in the quest.

The eight essays in Draft No. 4 were all originally published in The New Yorker (albeit in slightly different form), so I think I’ve read them all before. I remembered some of them more vividly than others, though, and they were all satisfying to read in book form. They’re all, as the book’s subtitle puts it, essays “on the writing process,” and many refer heavily to McPhee’s other work, which I found pretty fun: I liked being reminded of stuff of his that I’ve read and liked (like Oranges) and I also enjoyed being reminded of stuff of his I haven’t read yet but would like to (like Uncommon Carriers).

McPhee writes narrative nonfiction/creative nonfiction, and has taught a course on it at Princeton for decades, and these essays are full of his thoughts and advice on various aspects of doing that kind of writing. In “Progression” he writes about how one piece can lead, unexpectedly, to another, using the example of how a double profile of two tennis players ended up leading to his book Encounters with the Archdruid, which in turn led to other pieces. He writes about chronological vs. thematic organization, and the uses of outlining, in “Structure,” which also includes a great digression on his compositional methods over the years, from a typewriter and scissors to custom-built macros for a text-editing program. (There’s also a great bit where he talks about visiting the creator of that text-editing program.) He writes about the various interactions he’s had as part of the magazine work he’s done, from New Yorker editors and fact-checkers he’s worked with to interview subjects he’s had. There’s a great piece about frames of reference, a piece about writers’ block and the revision process and finding one’s style, and a really pleasing final piece about selection and omission in writing, which ends with a perfect story of an encounter McPhee had with Eisenhower in 1950.

McPhee is really good at a lot of things, including beginnings and endings, and I loved the way so many of these pieces started or finished, from that Eisenhower story to the image of a backyard in summertime with a picnic table and an ash tree to a story about McPhee watching a movie about quarter horses (which was based on a piece he’d written) that concludes with the image of him “on the floor groping under the seat for nickels, dimes, and pennies” that had fallen from his pocket (16). I also was totally charmed by two moments of McPhee in the classroom: in one piece, he visits his granddaughter’s English class (she’s a senior in high school at the time) to check the frames of reference in a piece he’s written: he reproduces the list of things he asked about, with the number of students who knew what each was. And in another piece, he talks about his experience of cutting lines from his work when he was a writer for Time magazine, and then about assigning this same task to his students, telling them to use both their own work and specific famous texts.

Though Secret Brooklyn is a guidebook (separated into sections by neighborhood, with color photos and page-long listings about various places/attractions), I think it’d be useful only to very intrepid tourists. I think it’s a better book for NYC/Brooklyn residents who are interested in the weird/quirky/overlooked: there are some things in this book I would go out of my way to go to, but there are more spots that are just cool to read about, especially if they’re things I’ve passed by without even knowing about them. There are places in this book that are familiar to me, and others that are totally new to me. I had no idea, for example, that there are two fragments of Plymouth Rock in Brooklyn Heights, or that the doors of a Lebanese church in that neighborhood are from the SS Normandie. I didn’t know that the blue-and-yellow “L” tiling in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station advertises a long-gone department store (Loeser’s), or that the silver-gated area you can see next to the F-train track at Jay Street was where money was unloaded from a special train that ran until 2006, or that there’s a cheese-aging business in an old brewery building’s lagering tunnel, right next to a beer-hall that I’ve been to more than once. I love that this book includes a listing for the Pratt Institute Steam Plant, which used to power my favorite New Year’s Eve event, though when I tried to take my boyfriend to look at the steam plant last year, it was locked and we were only able to peer in through the interior windows. I like that it mentions the abandoned lower-level Bergen Street subway station, which you can see from the train when the F runs on the express track. I like that it mentions the Masstransiscope, and the eruvin that serve as loopholes to the “no carrying things on the Sabbath” rule for Orthodox Jews, and how it calls out interesting parts of well-known attractions, like the Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (which I love), or the Statue of Liberty replica in the parking lot at the Brooklyn Museum (whose story I hadn’t previously known). And I love this, from the listing for the City Reliquary (which is definitely worth a visit): “You may not know yet that you’re interested in scale models of the Statue of Liberty, or the skeletons of urban rats, or rock samples from the different New York boroughs. But you probably are. Helping you realize this is what The City Reliquary in Williamsburg is about” (65). If those few sentences appeal to you, the rest of this book probably will, too.

Despite loving Roz Chast’s work whenever I see it in the New Yorker (speaking of which: her recent cover is amazing), I hadn’t known she had written a book about NYC until Jenny from Reading the End mentioned it in a comment here last year. I immediately put a hold on it at the library, and after a lengthy wait, it finally arrived, right as I found my normal reading routines upended by an injury that means I can’t currently hold anything heavier than a coffee cup in my right hand, which makes reading on the subway pretty much impossible.

Ah well: this ended up being a perfect book to read on my couch in two sittings, though I am not entirely its ideal audience. I came to NYC for college and stayed after graduation: I’ve now been here for nearly 18 years if you count my time in college; I’ve lived in Brooklyn for nearly 14 years. So I don’t really need an explanation of uptown/downtown, how streets and avenues work, and where the different Manhattan subway lines go. That said, Chast’s style, both narration-wise and illustration-wise, totally works for me, so even her descriptions of basic Manhattan geography had their charm. (This book got its start as a guide for Chast’s daughter, who grew up in the suburbs and came to NYC for college, so it’s a little bit of a beginner’s guide to the city, but it’s also more than that.)

Where this book shines, for me, is in the more personal bits: the parts about Chast’s favorite things in NYC, the parts that capture her style and sensibility and sense of humor and way of looking at the world. There’s a bit about the time when Chast found an unusual item on the sidewalk that I’d read previously (I think it was published in the New Yorker) that still made me laugh out loud this time around. There are bits about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. There’s a drawing of a street tree in winter with plastic bags caught in its branches, whose accompanying text is just: “If Manhattan had an official tree, it would be this one” (125). There are multiple bits about the pleasures of walking in the city, which I relate to a whole lot. “I am interested in the person-made,” Chast writes, and continues: “I like to watch and eavesdrop on people. And I really like DENSITY OF VISUAL INFORMATION” (40). (Which is followed by the totally excellent image you can see as the lead illustration in this NPR piece.) “If you are feeling antsy or out of sorts,” Chast advises, “pick a street and walk across it from coast to coast. Any street will do. The more nondescript your street is, the greater chance you have of making your own discoveries” (47-49). And Chast’s drawings and photographs show some of these sorts of discoveries: I love a drawing of a sign for a deli advertising “ham & cheese warps,” and photos showing different varieties of standpipe connections. I also like the way Chast quotes from E.B. White’s Here Is New York, another lovely book about the city that I should reread one of these days.

Winter is the second novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, and I initially found it less approachable than Autumn, though I think that’s absolutely by design. This is a story about a family, and about family memories and secrets and dysfunctions, and its characters aren’t as instantly likable as those in Autumn, but it’s also, eventually, a book about light and connection and generosity and warmth in a midwinter time of darkness, and as things got a little brighter I found myself enjoying the book more.

The book is set mostly in Cornwall, mostly around Christmas: an older woman, Sophia Cleves, is expecting her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte for a holiday visit. But Art and Charlotte have broken up, not that he wants to tell Sophia that, and since Sophia and Charlotte have never met, Art figures he can bring someone else, someone who will pretend to be Charlotte for a few days. But when Art and his companion arrive, it’s clear that all is not quite right with Sophia, so Art’s environmentalist/activist/ex-squatter aunt Iris is called in to help out, despite the fact that she and Sophia haven’t spoken for decades.

All of that, though, makes this book sound like more of a straightforward holiday family drama than it is. There’s various bits of strangeness throughout, like when Sophia sees something in her field of vision that seems to turn into the disembodied head of a child, which then keeps her company for several days, or when Art gets drunk at dinner and sees a bit of coastline looming in the air over the dining room table. And there’s lots of humor and wordplay and pleasingly-constructed passages (like a bit where we get a whole conversation first in terms of what one of the characters is saying, and then in terms of the other character’s replies) and thoughts about art and memory and emotion and nature and the current political moment and life in general, and bits of Autumn that come into play in this story, too, and it all ultimately really worked for me, despite the initial chilliness of it.

Malacqua is about what its subtitle says it’s about—”Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event”—but that only partly captures the mood and feel of this atmospheric novel. Malacqua is about four days of rain, yes, but it’s also about how things work or don’t work, about how the government works or doesn’t work, about how people are stuck or indecisive or unsure or resolved about things in their lives, and about how life goes on, and about how people move through their days, with their everyday frustrations and rebellions (or dreams thereof) and hopes and worries. There’s an introduction/prologue, and then a section of the book for each of the four days; the narration of each day is made of long sentences, long paragraphs, wonderful unspooling phrases about city-life, city-moments, with the focus shifting from place to place, character to character. The book starts and ends with a journalist, Carlo Andreoli (who’s 35, though I read him as ten or twenty years older and was surprised when his age was mentioned), and focuses partly on the direct consequences of the rain that starts and then continues for four days: a sinkhole opens in a road; buildings collapse; people die. But we also get little snippets of other inhabitants of Naples and their lives: a stenographer thinking about sex and her boyfriend, a girl in her late teens meeting up with a lover, a poet giving a reading, a café owner and his English wife, a mother whose son has just gotten married, a ten-year-old girl whose mother is difficult, a secretary waiting for a bus and thinking about her romantic relationships. We also get some magical realism, which is sort of loosely integrated into the story: a few weird/inexplicable things happen, but mostly we’re in a more or less realistic, if soggy, landscape.

I loved the descriptive passages about Naples and its water and its weather, from the first sentence of the book on: here’s how the book starts:

And through the windowpane steaming grey thoughts following the sea, with Santa Lucia huddled behind him, hands in his pockets, listening to the silence of his silence, the gusts of the coming wind, and those leaves twisting in the street, down into the asphalt (9)

A few pages later, we read about “the brackish air, the smell of diesel” (11). Later, night arrives “with inky streaks and sudden gusts” (13); later still, there’s this, which I think is great:

The harbour was peaceful and silent, with very few lights still burning, and only from time to time a train’s rattle in the silence, a rattling train and a few silent cars inside that silence. There was night, only night, floating over the telegraph poles, the neon signs. (61)

I also like the way that the narrative shifts from character to character, and the way that different characters’ thoughts and memories are explored: I like how a passage about a police officer looking at the sea turns into him thinking about swimming off a boat with his friends when he was a kid, which turns into him thinking about his marriage and his wife, who’s ill/anxious, so that you can’t help but reflect on the contrast between his childhood (all possibility and freedom) and his adult life, but in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, in a way that just flows.

Malacqua was originally published in Italian in 1977, and this is the first time it’s been published in English translation: as the back cover explains, it was withdrawn from publication until after Pugliese’s death, at his request. This was Pugliese’s only novel, but I wish he’d written others: I found myself thoroughly immersed in this book and its style, transported from a wintry New York existence to a rainy autumnal Neapolitan one.

Standard Deviation is a novel about married life and parenting, but also about life in general: it’s full of “all that stuff you do every day that sometimes seems pleasurable and sometimes seems pointless but never seems to end” (259). Those everyday moments, particularly the ones that are on the edge of ridiculous, are a big part of what I like about this book. The everyday moments we see are from the twelfth year of Graham and Audra’s marriage: he’s 56, she’s 41, and he cheated on his first wife, Elspeth, with her, but now they’ve been together for longer than he and Elspeth were, and they have a son, Matthew, who’s 10 and on the autism spectrum. I like that we see Graham and Audra going grocery shopping (where she runs into her yoga teacher and lies about why she missed class that morning) and going about their workdays (Graham’s young/clueless secretary is pretty great) and doing parental tasks they’d rather not (from a party for parents of kids in Matthew’s Cub Scout troop to an origami conference to a really great scene in which Graham and their doorman, Julio, rush around collecting food from various parents for a multicultural school event). I like the humor of scenes like a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, scenes which are often made funnier by Audra’s lack of a filter: she seems to say whatever she’s thinking, without any sense of whether or not it’s appropriate for the time/place/audience. And I like the way we see Graham and Audra, and then just Graham, interacting with Elspeth (who hasn’t been in their lives at all until now) after Graham runs into her by chance at a deli. I like the way Graham and Elspeth’s interactions, in particular, are used to explore friendship and intimacy and personhood and agency, and I also like the scenes where we see Graham and Audra and Elspeth together. I like how Heiny captures little things so well, like the “half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time” (16), or like this:

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. (43)

That said, I think I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, or maybe for books about marriage in general: I disliked how the question of infidelity kept coming up in various ways/for various people, without any recognition of the fact that monogamy is not the only relationship model (even though I realize that for a lot of people, it is).

2017 year-end wrap-up

December 30th, 2017

It’s not quite the end of the year yet, but I think it’s unlikely I’ll finish another book over the next two days, so here goes. I think 2017 was the first year ever in which the number of movies I saw was greater than the number of books I read, which I attribute to having started to date someone who a) is very into/knowledgable about film b) has a MoMA membership and frequently gets us tickets to film screenings there and c) convinced me to join MoviePass, which has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. But it was a solid reading year for me, too. I read fewer books than last year (50, as opposed to 52 last year) but enjoyed most of what I did read. The breakdown:

Picture books/middle-grade books/YA (including one play): 15. Highlights: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea, with its magic of intuition and empathy, and the way it mixed fantasy/Chosen One elements with real-world/coming-of-age elements. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with its smart/no-nonsense protagonist and its depiction of a Black family in the South in the 1930s. The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. PĂ©rez with its mix of prose and visual art, and its mix of plot-focused narrative and lovely descriptive passages. I also loved re-reading The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper in December.

Fiction (for grown-ups, including graphic novels): 23. Highlights: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz, with its gradually unspooling connected stories, The Chimes by Anna Smaill, with its gorgeous and musical writing, and Autumn by Ali Smith, which is so full of heart. I also was totally engrossed by Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, both of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books, and Max Gladstone’s latest in the Craft sequence: but, really, I read a lot of good fiction this year. More of what I read this year was of the plot-driven/delicious variety than the thorny/challenging variety, and I’m OK with that.

Non-fiction (including autobiographical comics): 12. In the books-about-other-places category I really liked Marcelino Truong’s graphic memoir about the Vietnam of his childhood, Such a Lovely Little War, and Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House, about going to the Falkland Islands to write. In the books-about-sex category, I was delighted by Emily Witt’s really really smart book of essays, Future Sex, and by Toni Bentley’s memoir about sex/submission/transcendence, The Surrender. And of course I loved Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal, which includes a lot of great bits about the NYC of decades past and about Shopsin’s quirky/interesting family.

I ticked off 14 of the 24 categories for the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder challenge, and am probably going to approach the 2018 challenge in a similar way as I did the 2017 one: keeping an eye out for books that might fit the challenge, but mostly reading according to my whims. I hope 2017 was a good reading year for you, whatever that means for you, and that 2018 is full of bookish delights.

I know I read and liked at least the first two of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” books when I was a kid, but I hadn’t thought of them in ages. Then I read this piece by Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker website, in which she describes the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, as a book with “a surfeit of heart and an absence of sentiment,” and describes the style of the trilogy as being like “Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges.” Clearly I needed to go get the first book from the library. I read it over the course of two days and found the absurd humor of it pretty pleasing, though I probably liked it more as a kid than I do as an adult.

The book consists of thirty chapters/stories, each of which is named for one or more of the students and teachers at the imaginary school of the title (mostly the students and teachers from one particular class). The school is a bit odd: it was meant to have thirty classrooms on one floor but it was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom per story: “The builder said he was very sorry” (9). The builder is also sorry for having accidentally skipped from the 18th floor to the 20th, but the school’s loss is the reader’s gain: one of my favorite chapters in the book is about that missing 19th floor. Wayside School is odd in other ways, as well: in the first (and very memorable) chapter, a mean teacher turns students into apples; in another chapter, we get to ponder what ice cream that tastes like a particular person might be like. There are creepy bits and kind of mean bits and clever bits. Highlights for me included a chapter where illiterate bank robbers try to rob the school and a character gets revenge on the boastful kid who sits behind him, a chapter where a kid who draws a lot of pictures very quickly during art class learns about the idea of quality over quantity, a chapter in which a kid goes up and down thirty flights of stairs more times than he would like, a chapter with a mysterious interrogation in it, and a chapter in which a student says she’s too distracted by her itchy mosquito bites to do math. That mosquito-bite chapter features this, which I find so charming/funny/great:

“But we have all kinds of arithmetic,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without carrying, addition with carrying, and carrying without addition.”
“I don’t care,” cried Dana.
“We have that, too,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without caring. Now, stop carrying on.” (52)