Literary Bar in DC

Tonight, one of my best friends and I went to the Petworth neighborhood in DC to check out the Petworth Citizen and Reading Room. It’s right next door to Upshur Books, so of course we went in there beforehand. I got a copy of Akata Witch by Nnedi Okarafor and Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, and gazed at the London Review of Books before not buying it (Fun fact, I used to frequent the LRB shop across from the British Library a lot, but never bought anything except cake there).

Every weekend, the bartender in the Reading Room (a small bar off the main bar) chooses a book she likes and creates a menu of cocktails based on that book, named after lines in the book. This week was Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which I’m obliquely aware of, and the lines quoted for the cocktail names makes me want to read the book, since these lines are super evocative. I got a gin cocktail with rose and dry vermouths, while my friend got a masala chai whiskey (I think.) that was served with a flaming anise pod. The bar is decorated with books on bookshelves sorted by color, which is pretty attractive. It’s also a lending library, but I didn’t get a chance to ask more about that. I’ll have to investigate further, though, because I loved this bar and will definitely be coming back.

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What Did I Read in June???

Remind me to start taking notes while I read. Makes for more thoughtful reading and also remembering what I liked about anything.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho–If you were to ask me what one of my wheelhouses was, it would be Gentleman Magicians. This novel probably draws a lot of comparisons to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, though it is very different. Zacharias Wythe, as a black man who has become Sorcerer to the Crown, has to deal with racist colleagues and all that comes with that, and an odd relationship with his guardian and familiar, and make the case for women practicing proper magic by mentoring a promising young lady called Francine Gentleman. It’s a lot, and it’s lovely, and I liked it pretty well! The cover isn’t terribly drawing though, so I’m glad I knewwhat the book was about before seeing the cover.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys–After reading Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse in May, I remembered that I had a book by Jean Rhys that I was supposed to have read in college, but only got a chapter or two into before deciding I had better things to do. This is a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre following the woman who would become Bertha Mason. How she was destroyed by madness onset by colonizing forces (Edward Rochester). It paints a sympathetic portrait of Antoinette and makes me reevaluate the events of Jane Eyre. I thought the descriptions of the island were very beautiful, despite knowing it would be too hot for me to see in person. I was also interested in the race issues in the book–of white people from Europe and white people on the island and mixed race people who pass and who don’t, and people of color who are free and who are still servants despite being freed. I still don’t quite understand it all.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit–Mostly riding this trend of women’s essays I’m enjoying. The essays weren’t anything revolutionary to my feminist thinking, and pretty much treated me the way “The Feminist Mystique” did, which was to remind me of how bad things were. A nice trip down memory lane into 2012, 2013. Nothing mind-blowing, though I did like the essay on Virginia Woolf.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville–I’ve been trying to read this book since I was probably 18 years old. I got a little way through in junior year of college to the delight of one of my fellow choir members, but had to disappoint him when I didn’t finish it. Anyway, this book is disgusting and I mean that as the highest praise. I absolutely adored Mieville’s world of New Crobuzon and the language he used to describe it. I think that his usage of all those obscure, multi-syllabic words, while sounding fancy on their own, served to heighten the griminess of the world. Probably because some of those words sound really unpleasant. I liked to refer to the book as “Putrefaction: A Novel.” The garuda people in the book reminded me of those bird creatures in “The Dark Crystal” but also sound like something out of Legend of Zelda. I was also really struck with the Remade. The concept of the Remade gave me the creeps: people who were literally remade like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, either with different body parts, or pieces of machinery, usually as punishment. The images in the Remade brothel still are sticking with me, like the woman with a second vulva for a mouth, or the two people who were now just two lower halves stitched together. It’s very good body horror.

Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne–I found this book at the Library of Congress gift shop, and had heard about this Object Lessons series from Simon Savidge, so I picked it up. It’s a very quick read, literally about bookshelves: their history, how we interact with them, what they mean as symbols in our lives. Pretty cool.

Books Read in May

Let’s see, let’s see, what did I read last month? I’ll tell you what, it’s a good thing I never set a goal for how many books I want to read this year because that would reeeeally stress me out. May was a pretty good month for books, especially since I ended up reading a new favorite.

Murder of Angels by Caitlín R. Kiernan–Still one of my favorite authors at this time in my life. This book I think I found secondhand somewhere. Can’t remember. Anyway, this is the sequel to Silk, which I enjoyed, and this is a more developed book that’s more typical  of Kiernan’s style: the mixture of the “real” world and a hellish other world (at least from what I’ve read so far. I haven’t read anything newer that The Drowning Girl, which was very different). There’s some overlap with the world she explores in Daughter of Hounds, with the concept of ghouls. I really liked this book, especially understanding Spyder more. What an interesting character.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland–I wouldn’t have picked this book up except for the cover, because it’s beautiful. I’m not one for zombies, but this book was really cool. I’ve lately been interested in reading about the experiences of black characters pre-20th century, and this book covers issues such as passing as white, Reconstruction-era racism and sore losers, and assimilation of black people and First Nations people into white culture. I love that the main character Jane uses sickles because I think that’s a very stylish weapon. I was also fascinated by the world and the plot was very very fun.

My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews–I heard about this book listening to “My Favorite Murder” because they were going to read it but then got too disturbed by how messed up it was. Anyone who knows me knows I like reading messed up things, so I’ve been wanting to read this for a little bit. I listened to this on audio, and that was pretty good. It’s got cruel characters with an almost erotic fondness for chastity. I really liked trying to figure out what was going on, and loved the gothic ambience of the house.

Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin–I. Loved. This. Book. I was already prone to walking around cities by myself to see what I could see, especially when I was studying in London a few years ago. Not only is this a treatise on how revolutionary it can be to be a woman out in public by herself, being an observer as well as being observed, it’s also a mini-biography on several female artists and their relationships with “flanueserie.” I read most of this in one sitting at the Library of Congress (waiting for some William Morris pamphlets that took longer to get delivered to the reading room than I expected), and I’m really glad I had a notebook with me because this book got me thinking a lot. It made me want to pick up writing again, and I think I’ve successfully done that. So right after I finished this book, I left the library and went to a nearby bookstore and bought the dratted thing.

June’s turning out to be a pretty interesting reading month, so keep an eye out for the next monthly round-up!

Unreliable Narrators

I’ll admit this from the start: I have a pretty difficult time sussing out whether someone is an unreliable narrator. Oftentimes, the only way I know whether someone is an unreliable narrator is if there’s a huge reveal that what they told me actually happened a different way. While other books have unreliable narrators and the subtle hints that that’s so completely fly past me. Sometimes the big reveal makes it so obvious that the narrator is unreliable that I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner.

Talking to a friend of mine who is supremely invested in the under-the-hood aspects of stories, I came up with some hints that I could look for to tip me off that the narrator is unreliable before the big reveal. Some of the obvious ones are: How old is this character? Are they abusing drugs/alcohol? Does this character see things in black and white? Is this story in first or third person (with first person being more favorable for unreliability)? Who is disagreeing with this character and why?

It’s also reasonable to assume that every narrator is unreliable to a certain extent, given our tendency toward bias, you know?

My friend also pointed out that we are under no obligation to believe the narrator, but I tend to, because there’s got to be a point to them telling this story and learning that things might not be the way they seem as the character learns it. It’s our choice, though, to believe whether the narrator is telling the objective truth or not, and our reading experience will differ based on how we read it. And most importantly, there’s no one proper way to read any book.

When I was in 12th grade, I was doing an exercise for the AP Lit exam (which I didn’t take, anyway), and I had completely missed the fact that the writer was being sarcastic. As a result of my alternate reading of that passage, my conclusions were marked as wrong by my teacher. I’m obviously still bitter about that because it makes me feel stupid, even though my conclusions based on a sincere reading of the text were perfectly logical.

Part of the value of literature is the different lenses through which we can read something, and how the meaning of the text changes based on that text. How often has a different interpretation of a song made us listen in an entirely different way?

 

April Update

Only four books read last month, which I blame mostly on getting a new laptop (after eight years with the last one!) and discovering the joys of watching Netflix on the couch.

Unfortunately, I was unable to participate in Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon this month, since I was busy performing with my Morris dancing group, but I loved checking my Twitter feed to see how everyone else was doing. One woman booked a hotel room for the weekend, and dang if that isn’t the dream. But watch out, October, I’m ready for you!

The biggest book-related thing I did last month was to rearrange my books. It was a long time coming, since when I moved here several months ago, I just threw my books wherever they’d fit. This was especially necessary since one of my bookshelves is literally a tower of cardboard boxes sitting on their sides, and I had to put all the heavy things on the bottom and all the mass-markets on top. The lack of order of my books, however, was getting a little obnoxious, so I decided to sort by genre.

The biggest bookshelf (that’s actually a bookshelf) holds gothic & horror, classics & historical fiction, and memoirs, essays, & autobiographies. The shorter cardboard tower holds non-fiction, the taller cardboard tower holds fantasy, and the short actual bookshelf holds all remaining fiction. All my folklore, mythology, and paganism books are in an attractive stack next to fiction.

I actually love this arrangement because I can think about what I’m in the mood for before picking my next book. It also assures that if I’ve been wanting to read a certain book for a while, I don’t accidentally stumble across another book I want to read before finding the first one.

As for the books I read:

The Highlander Who Loved Me by Adrienne Basso. This is a Highlander romance that a friend bought me for my birthday at our local Renaissance Faire. I liked the basic plot, which is that two people in love are separated for several years after a tragedy, and can they fix their relationship. I really liked this book, even if I would have gone for another one of the characters. Toward the end of the book, it got downright gothic, which I loved. Oh, and the first eleven pages of the book were missing??? So…I have no idea what happened at the beginning.

Lord Wraxall’s Fancy by Anna Lieff Saxby. This was a historical erotic novel recommended to me by a friend after I mentioned reading the first of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy a few years ago. It was almost funny, but totally expected, just how much sex was happening. Like, if two characters interacted, they had sex. And hey, you get what it says on the tin. Anyway, I kind of had to suspend my values while reading this because the way the book handles race is pretty questionable. Taking place in the 18th century Caribbean, and all. But aside from that, I liked it. Solid erotica.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Heard about this book from Simon Savidge’s YouTube channel, and since I’m really into that Victorian Naturalist stuff at this point in my life, I wanted to give it a go. This book took me the longest to get through–probably even longer than I was expecting a book of this size to take. I loved Cora Seaborne and her son Frances, and I wish Cora was a lesbian, but she’s not. Actually, I’ll bet part of the reason this book took me so long to finish was because every time Will (the vicar) spoke, I had to stop and think about what my religious beliefs are. This book verges on folk horror, but is really more about two souls drawing together.

The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work by Nicole Pagowsky. Ah, reading related to work. I didn’t need to read this or anything, but since I’m not faculty, nor am I working in any real capacity on campus, I like to stay connected with research and discourse in my profession. This book was incredibly eye-opening, discussing issues about how we relate to librarian stereotypes, how these stereotypes affect how we can help the community, what it means to defy these stereotypes by choice or by birth. Really really fascinating. Plus there was a chapter (underwhelming if I’m honest) about librarians and cats. I didn’t get many conclusions from this book, but there was absolutely so much to think about.

March Books!

This is the month that I finally bought a book light. It’s made it easier to read in bed since my lamp is halfway across the apartment from me. Only thing is I feel like the light fades the longer I keep it on. Or maybe that’s my eyes getting used to things.

I attended my first library conference this month in Knoxville, TN. I had a great time and made some con buddies. Shoutout to Union Street Books, where I bought a The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West (which has been on my TBR for years) and an Oscar Wilde-scented candle (I forget the brand, but it’s nice). And the two puppies who lived there. I also stumbled upon a library/book-themed speakeasy behind The Oliver. Won’t say more than that. Just look for the red light. They had a ton of different brands of absinthe there, which is absolutely my drink of choice when they have it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did. The summary sounded kind of uninteresting, and I wasn’t sure what being an Oprah’s Book Club pick meant about what the book was like. But, this was really good. I listened to it on audio, and the performance was nice. It really got me thinking about immigrants, and I was especially invested in Neni’s story arc, and would be interested to see how she fares after the events of the book. The book shed some light on why immigrants sometimes make certain choices, so I’m glad I read it. It also got me daydreaming about maybe emigrating to the United Kingdom someday.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde. So I came across this book when Andrew and Craig on Overdue did an episode on it. As a women-loving woman (in theory), I really love reading stories of LGBTQ people in the earlier 20th century, even if they are terribly depressing. So when I got a new library and was looking for audiobooks to check out from Overdrive, I remembered I hadn’t read anything by Audre Lorde, and I recognized this title from the podcast. This book took me over a month to read, but only because someone else had placed it on hold at the library, so I got halfway, two-thirds way through and then had to wait until the next person was done. And of course, by the time I got it again, I’d forgotten kind of the main thrust behind the book. But I liked reading this book. It was a great memoir about being a Black lesbian in the 1950s, and more than that, it was a lovely story about how Lorde’s past loves have imprinted themselves on her. I was struck by the casual cruelty that Lorde endured at school because of her blindness, but I was rooting for her the whole way through. Also, shoutout to a fellow librarian!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I adore highbrow New York coming of age stories, this one especially. I loved the discussion of art, being an amateur aesthete myself, and I loved the melancholy. I came to love Theo and really despise Boris (and many others) and really want to be Hobie. While this book takes place in several parts, it’s obvious how the painting unifies them, even if it doesn’t show up. It’s a symbol of Theo’s mother, his past, and beauty. It’s the driving force behind Boris’s actions and those actions are a large turning point for Theo. This book is very readable for literary fiction, for the most part, but I do wish we had had more passages like the final chapter scattered throughout the book. This book took me quite a long time to read, but I really like long books.

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. This is the second book I’ve read by LaValle, the first being the novella The Ballad of Black Tom, which I loved. Now, I thought this book would be more in a horror vein, and there are elements of horror, i.e. The Devil, but that’s not the focus of the book. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it, despite how much I worried about what all those pills were doing to Pepper’s system since he didn’t need them. I especially loved the narrator of the book. They’re never named, nor are they a character, but the voice is so fun. I also appreciated how we never actually find out what The Devil is. I may have mentioned this before, but I hate the inevitable reveal/explanation that takes away all the horror.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. This was a big name title last year, and boy was I delighted that it was not only short stories about women, but horrific short stories about women. I loved reading this! I especially enjoyed the first story: a retelling of that children’s ghost story about the woman with the green ribbon around her neck. When we used to stuff ourselves in the closet to tell ghost stories, this one was mine. The stories in the collection are reminiscent of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s work, mostly in that queer women and madness/not being able to trust your own mind are major themes, which is interesting, since Kiernan usually gets relegated to weird fiction or neo-Lovecraftian lists, while Machado’s work is being sold as literary fiction.

In addition to the books I read this month, I also flipped through a few chapters of Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song-Man by Sean Williams and Lillis Ó Laoire.

 

February’s Books Read

I was only able to finish four books this past month, but I was in the middle of a lot of other books too, which will show up in the March post.

I’ve made a decision for myself that I read too many books that bore me for the sake of diverse reading. That’s not the point of the whole initiative to read more widely. So I’ve resolved to only read a book that interests me, and I’ll prioritize reading or buying the book if it happens to be written by a marginalized voice.

Now, without further ado:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson–I’m glad I listened to this book, since I was asleep for most of my planetary geology class back a few years ago. I was especially taken in by the discussion of dark matter, since I had done a small report on Fritz Zwicky in 8th grade. Also because I love the scary parts of outer space.

The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy by Dave Madden– I was actually kind of disappointed by this book. It was more of a biography of Carl Ackley than I would have liked. I did learn a lot though, and I liked the insight into the culture of taxidermists and natural history museums. But I wanted more. And maybe some color plates in the middle.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul–This was a book of essays that was listed as part of a reading challenge last year that I didn’t finish. But it was on sale at P&P, so I went ahead and picked it up. I thought it was really engaging. I have no idea who Koul is, but she has a great voice and a fun story, and I really enjoyed reading it.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang– This book was so cool. It ended kind of abruptly, which I know is a thing in literary fiction. I read this on ebook, and I’m definitely going to buy a hard copy the next time I have disposable income. I thought the three different perspectives were good for breaking up the story. It was three different story arcs, all having to do with Yeong-hye’s sudden vegetarianism. The best part was that it was slightly horrific. Body horror is something I adore and don’t get enough of, and this was body horror done beautifully and subtly.