My reading experience of How to be both felt slower and more scattered than I would like—I started it while getting ready to move, and finished it after moving, and there was a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and generally being stressed in between—but it’s Ali Smith, and I pretty much always think she’s great. This is a dual-narrative novel in which the two sections can be read in either order, and the book was printed so that some copies have one section first, while others start with the other section. Mine started with the “camera” section, which focuses on George (short for Georgia), who’s an English teenager whose mother unexpectedly died a few months before the story starts. George remembers a trip she took to Italy with her mother and brother, and remembers, in particular, the frescoes they saw at Palazzo Schifanoia. (A detail from one of the scenes in the fresco is what prompted the trip to begin with.) We see George’s daily life: her experience of loss and grief, the way she thinks about her mother, her relationship with her father and brother, conversations she has with a school counsellor, and her relationship with a girl from school, H (short for Helena). Then comes the “eyes” section, which is narrated by the ghost/spirit of Francesco del Cossa, the artist who made those frescoes George and her mom saw. del Cossa is unexpectedly conscious, and in England (and watching George, in fact—they’re somehow tied together). We get del Cossa’s memories of working as a painter and living in Italy in the 1400s and also del Cossa’s observations of England, and of George.

I like the bothness of this book a lot, the way it looks at past and present, art and life, death and life, grief and love, and other dualities besides, and I like how it’s full of Ali Smith’s usual combination of playfulness and empathy and grace and intelligence. I’m glad I read the “camera” section of the book first: it’s more of a straightforward narrative, and while I probably liked the “eyes” section more, I might have felt adrift if I’d opened the book to it, and I like the way that the start of the “camera” section raises questions that are very relevant to the “eyes” section. (George and her mother in the car in Italy have this conversation, where George’s mom is telling her to imagine a hypothetical situation where George is an artist asking for more money: “Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?” and then: “Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other. Who says? Why must it? her mother says” (9).) I also like the way this book explores different aspects of paintings, and of stories, and of what art does/how art works.

This book, which was originally published in Japan in 1988, contains two pieces, a novella and a story, or a novella and a shorter novella. “Kitchen”, the first piece, is the longer of the two; “Moonlight Shadow” is shorter. They’re both about love and loss and grief and loneliness and hope and connection, and I think when I first picked this book up, I read through both pieces too quickly and didn’t fully appreciate them. On a reread, I paid more attention to the things I liked about them, especially the things I liked about “Kitchen,” and enjoyed the book as a whole more.

“Kitchen” is narrated by Mikage, who was raised by her grandparents after her parents both died young. Her grandfather died when she was about to start junior high; when the book opens she’s been going to university, but has been taking time off after her grandmother’s death. Her life becomes intertwined with that of a boy named Yuichi who’s a year younger and works at a flower shop her grandmother used to frequent; after Mikage’s grandmother’s death, Mikage ends up going to live with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, for a time, then moves out, then reconnects with Yuichi after he experiences a loss of his own. A lot of the book is about the distance between people, and how that distance is magnified by grief, and also about the tension between the inner world and the outer one in general: there are lots of passages where Mikage is looking out a window, and that sense of the self being separated from the rest of the world by more than just glass keeps recurring. And then there’s the kitchen, the room of the book’s title: it’s Mikage’s favorite place, and it’s a place of warmth and comfort and food and the possibility of connection. Mikage finds herself feeling heartened by just the sounds and steam from a kitchen she passes on her way home on a night when she’s feeling sad and adrift; she and Yuichi bond, when they reconnect, after she cooks him an elaborate meal.

A lot of the passages about looking out windows are really pleasing to me, like this, when Mikage is looking out the window on her first night at Yuichi and Eriko’s apartment: “Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth-floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparkling, replete with moisture, refracted the glittering light splendidly” (16).

Or this: “The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness. No place, not one” (23).

Or this: “I watched the rows of windows in the tall building across the street from the bus stop, suspended, emitting a pretty blue light. The people moving behind those windows, the elevators going up and down, all of it, sparkling silently, seemed to melt into the half-darkness” (33).

“Moonlight Shadow” is about love and loss and hope, too: the narrator, Satsuki, talks about how she’s recently taken up jogging as a way to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, who was only twenty. The same accident that took his life also killed his younger brother Hiiragi’s girlfriend; we see the ways Hiiragi grieves and tries to cope, too. While jogging one morning, Satsuki meets a girl who’s around her own age, or a little older; the girl startles her and Satsuki drops her thermos off the bridge that she runs to every day, which separates her neighborhood from Hitoshi’s. The girl, Urara, tells Satsuki about a mysterious event she might be able to see at the bridge in a few days’ time. Urara, and that mysterious event, end up bringing a sense of closure and hope to Satsuki, and maybe to Hiiragi too. It’s a pleasing little piece, though overall I think I liked the length and descriptiveness of “Kitchen” more.

I read an excerpt from There There in the New Yorker several months ago, and I liked it a lot, but one thing that wasn’t apparent from the excerpt was the way the book is structured—which, luckily, I also liked a lot. There There keeps shifting perspectives, with different chapters focusing on different characters. Some of those chapters are in narrated in the first person; most are in the third; all focus on Native American characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. A lot of the characters live in Oakland, and in the first chapter we learn about an upcoming powwow that’s going to be held there, and about a plan to rob that powwow. So there’s tension built into the narrative: you’re reading to learn more about each character’s story and about how the characters are connected to one another (some are related, some work together, some just cross paths in the course of the powwow being planned and organized) but also to find out what exactly is going to happen at the powwow itself. There’s also a prologue and an interlude, both of which add context and background and moments of Native American history: King Philip’s war, massacres of villages of Pequot people perpetrated by colonists in the 1600s, the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

There There is about family and memory and history and identity, and I like how the different characters have different relationships to the idea of being Native American: one point the book makes is that there is no single way of being Native, just like there’s no single way of being anything else.

Sing, Unburied, Sing opens on a boy named Jojo’s 13th birthday, which is also the day his mom gets a phone call from his dad to say he’s getting out of Parchman, the penitentiary where he’s been for the past three years. It’s a book about transitions (between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between freedom and incarceration and vice versa) and family and memory and stories and history, and what we can and can’t do to protect people from the world, and it’s really well-written and sad and beautiful and there was a scene near the end that totally had me sitting on my couch in tears. The chapters are all narrated in the first person, mostly by Jojo and Leonie, though there are a few chapters narrated by another character, Richie. (I guess I’ll be vague about Richie and how he fits into the story, though the flap copy of the book isn’t.) The first-person narration really worked for me: I loved Jojo’s character/voice, but also liked that the book included Leonie’s perspective: she’s not a great parent to Jojo and his little sister Kayla, but it’s good to see some of her awareness of that, to see some of how she feels about that. (And it’s not like she’s in the easiest situation: she’s a Black woman in a relationship with a White man whose family won’t acknowledge her or her children; she had an older brother who died violently; she got pregnant young; her partner is/has been incarcerated.) I like how the action of this book takes place over the course of just a few days, even as we get a lot of backstory; I like the way this book combines a really tight focus on a few characters with a much bigger sense of family and history and the passage of time. And I like the lyricism of Ward’s style, like when Jojo describes the landscape he sees from a car window like this: “I like the heat. I like the way the highway cuts through the forests, curves over hills heading north, sure and rolling. I like the trees reaching out on both sides, the pines thicker and taller up here, spared the stormy beating the ones on the coast get that keeps them spindly and delicate” (63).

The ten essays in this book range in subject/tone from funny to serious, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up: I had read one of the funny ones and somehow thought the whole book would be like that, which it isn’t. Not that that’s a bad thing: I like Koul’s style, whether she’s writing about the problem-drinking of a close friend at university or getting stuck in a skirt in a dressing room. A lot of this book has to do with family: Koul’s parents emigrated from India to Canada before she was born, and she writes about their family history and their worries and expectations and quirks, and about the tensions and good parts of her relationship with them. Koul also writes about race and racism and privilege (including her own privilege as a lighter-skinned person of color); the parts of the book where she writes about going to a cousin’s wedding in India were really interesting in the way they melded humor and seriousness, travelogue and social commentary.

After I dislocated my elbow in January, when I read the message from my doctor’s office that said the MRI showed a torn ligament, a torn tendon, and a fracture, my first reaction was a giant mental “ugh,” except with more swear words. My second reaction was to put on the song “Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney, the volume turned up loud. Dig Me Out was the first Sleater-Kinney album I heard (I was in high school when it came out), and that title track is apparently still my first choice for a song to hear when I’m upset, when I want to get lost in something loud. Carrie Brownstein writes about that song in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, how her guitar riff starts off “fast and careening, a skid into a crash,”; how her bandmate Corin Tucker’s vocals are “desperate and angry,” how the melody is “on the brink of oblivion, frenzied yet resolute” (124). Brownstein also writes about her own musical experiences as a fan, about “why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now” (3). I don’t know: some albums I listened to in high school haven’t aged particularly well, and I think there’s more than nostalgia in some of the ones that still sound great, though yes, there’s nostalgia and familiarity too, in the way it feels to hear a song you first heard and loved decades ago. All of which is to say, I really like Sleater-Kinney, and have been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2015, and I’m not sure what took me so long.

There are lots of fun things about this book, which is mostly but not entirely chronological, and largely but not entirely focused on Brownstein’s time with Sleater-Kinney between 1994 and 2006. After an opening section about Brownstein’s youth, where we learn about the challenges of her early family life, her love of performing, and how she started being in bands, we get chapters about each Sleater-Kinney album through The Woods, with bits about writing the songs, making the albums, and touring. I sometimes wanted the structure to be a bit tighter—there’s a chapter about having opening bands/being an opening band that was interesting but didn’t feel like it was integral to the narrative flow—but the overall reading experience was satisfying to me. I liked reading about how Brownstein approaches/feels about music, like when she writes this: “so much of my intention with songs is to voice a continual dissatisfaction, or at least to claw my way out of it” (51). I liked reading about how Brownstein listened to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, how she met Corin Tucker by introducing herself after a Heavens to Betsy show; I liked reading about the music scenes in Seattle and Olympia and Portland. I liked reading about the challenges and rewards of making music, of touring and recording. And I liked reading about specific albums, thinking about specific songs. I also appreciated Brownstein’s self-aware and sometimes lyrical writing style, like in this passage, where she’s talking about home/family:

I realized that after wanting to celebrate Christmas for so long, it wasn’t about having a tree, it was about having a box in the basement or attic or garage, something that we could return to over and over again, something that said, this is us and this is where we were last year, and this is where we’ll stay, and this is where we’ll pile on the memories, over and over again, until there are so many memories that it’s blinding, the brightness of family, the way love and nurturing is like a color you can’t name because it’s so new. (46)

When I picked up Starlings I thought it was a collection of short stories, but it isn’t, not quite. For one thing, it also includes poems and a short play. And as Walton puts it in her introduction, the short fiction here is itself varied: there are short stories but also “extended jokes,” exercises/experiments, first chapters of unwritten books, and “some poems with the line breaks taken out” (20). The pieces vary in length and in style: there are some very short pieces (like those aforementioned extended jokes), and some longer ones; there are pieces with a fantasy/fairy tale feel, and pieces that are set in space, or that are about artificial intelligence. (There’s even a noir/hard-boiled detective story.) While I liked some pieces more than others, I had a whole lot of fun with the book as a whole. I liked the shifts in setting and tone and narrative style, and even though I don’t tend to read very many stories set in space, the ones in this book were pretty enjoyable. My favorite piece in the book, though, was probably the first one, “Three Twilight Tales,” which is gorgeous and full of magic and possibilities, and which is itself very much concerned with the shape of stories and the power of stories. Other highlights for me were “Jane Austen to Cassandra”, which is fun and funny, and The Panda Coin, whose structure I like a lot. And because I’d previously read Walton’s Small Change trilogy, I was glad to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” (though it feels weird to say I was glad to read something so dark).

In Dragon’s Green, the first book in her Worldquake middle-grade fantasy sequence, Scarlett Thomas introduced us to Effie Truelove, a young True Hero just discovering her magical abilities, and to her also-magical friends/classmates (Lexy, Maximilian, Raven, and Wolf), and to the shape of the world in which they live, where a lot of magical power is bound up with books and stories. In The Chosen Ones, the second book of the series, we get to see Effie learn more about herself and magic, and we also get to see her friends getting themselves and each other in and out of peril. There’s a whole lot of plot, but the short version is that evil publisher Skylurian Midzhar is planning to use some bookish magic to give herself and her fellow villains a whole lot of power; it’s up to Effie and her friends to foil that plan.

The Chosen Ones, like Dragon’s Green, is smart and lots of fun: Thomas is an English professor, and it shows: there’s one part where Effie and her friends are given a close-reading assignment as homework, and a great moment where Skylurian explains that she and her colleagues “at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of the Death of the Author” (350). Which isn’t to say that the only delights of The Chosen Ones are the bookish moments: the mix of moments of action and moments of reflection really worked for me, as did the way the story shifts between Effie and others (mostly Maximilian, who goes on a few adventures of his own, and Raven, whose ability to communicate with animals gives her some early knowledge of crucial plot points). I also liked the mix of magic and other things: Effie isn’t just learning about saving the universe, but also about friendship and sadness and how to take care of herself and how to let others help her when she needs it, too.

Border Districts is one of those books that I admire, even though I didn’t love it: it feels well-constructed, and there’s a lot I appreciate about Murnane’s style, even as I feel like I’m maybe not the ideal reader for this book. It’s very much in its narrator’s head—if you’re looking for something plot-driven, look elsewhere—and it’s very concerned with memory and reading and thinking and seeing, with the life of the mind and with the imagined inner lives of others. All of which is pretty appealing to me, but there were times when I felt like this book was a slog, though it’s pretty short, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. It’s narrated by an older man who has moved from an unnamed Australian city to a more remote town; it’s full of recurring images and themes: stained glass, light, color, sight, interiority. The narrator thinks about praying in chapel in his days as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, and how he compared his own known thoughts/experience to the unknown thoughts/experience of his fellow-students: “I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate” (5). He thinks about “the life and death of mental entities” (17): how he remembers some bits of stories he read decades ago, or how he still has certain mental images relating to Catholicism even though he’s no longer a believer, or how other formerly-religious people end up realizing that they “no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so” (18).

Some of the narrative feels very dry and a bit tedious to me (like when the narrator is describing a mental image he had that was prompted by an author photograph on the back of a book), but I found other sections to be a delight, like this:

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine… I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground. (54-55)

Animals Eat Each Other is short and dark and intense, the kind of book it was easy to read in a day, even though being immersed in its narrator’s world made me feel a little queasy. It’s a story about obsession and insecurity and need and emptiness, and if you’re bothered by the idea of reading about people in their late teens/early twenties drinking and doing drugs and getting tattoos and having kinky group sex, this is not the book for you. It’s a story about post-high-school indirection and suburban boredom: our narrator, “Lilith,” whose real name we never learn, works at RadioShack, sneaks pills from her mom’s supply of painkillers, and drinks cough syrup for a good time. She also embarks on a relationship with a male/female couple around her age to whom she’s introduced by a friend, sleeps with her manager at work, and ends up having sex with her closest female friend, too. As the title of one chapter puts it, “the thing about boundary issues is that you end up fucking your friends or maybe everyone you know” (29).

The story is told with the benefit of distance (an older Lilith looking back at her younger self), but you get the sense that she’s self-aware in the midst of it, too. “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personalities, or the things they liked to eat, or what they liked to do when they weren’t texting me or sleeping with me,” she says at one point (22). And then, later: “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk” (61). Even as Lilith is trying and failing to use sex and relationships to feel validated and wanted and needed, she can see how she’s messing things up, and that, rather than the subject matter, was what made me feel queasy: that uncomfortable combination of self-knowledge and self-destructiveness, that sense of compulsion.