Sarah Mesle is LARB’s Senior Humanities Editor. The following is a list of books and essays she’s lately read — some recommended by friends, some picked randomly from the LARB book room; some new, some older. Her taste in novels, particularly when it comes to recreational reading, skews towards the popular and plot-driven (most often Young Adult); in essays, she prefers the punchy and polemic.
Hild, by Niccola Griffith, is slow, and it is demanding: it asks more from its reader than I’m usually willing to give at the end of a long day. It’s the fictional story of the real St. Hilda, who lived in England in the sixth century; it starts when she is three and spins out several hundred pages of lived detail. I just looked at the author’s website and the list of characters is four pages long, single-spaced. It includes entries such as “Cynan: cousin of Gwrast, lord of the Bryneich, one of Hild’s hounds” and “Swefred: chief swordman of Mulstanton, occasional lyre player.”
Does this sound dreadful? It’s so good. Lush, imaginative, raw; it’s a little like if you took the keen problem-solving satisfactions of Ender’s Game and combined them with the scene in Little House in the Big Woods when Pa makes the bullets (think about the glistening lead, and how easy it would be to burn your fingers!). The book is like that; it’s also, at times, super sexy, and at times (sometimes the same times) gut wrenching. Please read it so we can make references to each other about the gut-eating pigs of Lindsey.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater: I’ve praised Maggie Stiefvater in these pages before, and I still think she’s on the shortlist of most interesting and ambitious YA authors writing today. Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third installment in her Raven Boys cycle, came out last fall and I’d been hoarding it as a treat for myself: it was every bit as delicious as I’d hoped. Stiefvater takes boyhood seriously and family seriously; her minor characters sparkle (I particularly love a lanky rural farmer, subject to a curse, who speaks ENTIRELY IN ALL CAPS; he seemed to me like the opposite of Owen Meany). What’s best here, though, is Stiefvater’s deft rendering of how love flows through different kind of friendships; the characters here don’t so much partner off as group and regroup, creating different dynamics and pleasures. They are all in love with each other; I’m a little in love with all of them.
If you are looking for a good 19c novel, you might consider The Linwoods (1835)! I recently learned that a friend is reading it, which is so exciting, because the number of people I know who have read it is rapidly approaching ten people! Anyway, lots more of us should read it. It’s by Lydia Maria Sedgwick, who is more famous for Hope Leslie, which is also good, but The Linwoods takes place during the American revolution and features some really amazing mystical characters and a prison break scene, and also, it was Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite.
Academe’s Willful Ignorance of African Literature, by Aaron Bady: Aaron Bady, a regular contributor to The New Inquiry as well as other sites, is often a source for important social critique. This week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he offers a particularly forceful essay, significant in several respects: its lucid discussion of the attention Literature departments pay (and often don’t pay) to African literature is compelling on its own terms, and is also an avenue towards grappling with the inherent tensions between the politics and the practice of the contemporary university. The academic marketplace is so precarious these days that few scholars, of any rank, are willing to engage in this kind of open debate; regardless of your take on this particular issue, Bady willingness to collegially but firmly disagree is something we should all admire.
Every now and again, people declare that African literature has arrived, or is arriving, or will arrive soon. It’s not surprising that African literature is read as emerging: In the long emergency that seems to define Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world—in which “Africa” is a place of starving children, warring clans, and technological backwardness—the idea of African literature can seem positively utopian. It can be a delightful discovery when it seems to emerge. But that discovery says everything about the person making it, and nothing about the literature, which emerged a long time ago. And as long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach.
It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.
To celebrate a recent special issue of the journal GLQ, “On the Visceral,” editors Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Sharon P. Holland, and Marcia Ochoa have released a series of “Bocados,” or “mouthfuls.” All of these were pleasures, but two stood out to me. First, a conversation featuring the Toronto-based porn artist Dirtysurface, who discusses his work with soulfulness, humor, and intelligence. Second, and I’m not sure how to express my excitement about this: Donna Haraway writes about feeding her dogs. Donna Haraway! DOGS! All I want is more really serious scholars writing intently about their pets.
Letter of Recommendation: LaCroix Sparkling Water, Mary H.K. Choi: LaCroix sparkling water is a key part of my pedagogy: I call it “lady professor water,” in honor of my wonderful dissertation director, who offered hers to me generously, and buy at least one case at the start of every semester. LaCroix doesn’t actually taste good — it tastes sort of like nothing, which is not unpleasant — so regularly drinking it in my classes helps convey the sort of mystique I like to cultivate. I want my students to think I understand their world but that they don’t understand mine — that I have sophisticated tastes, for instance my taste for the blandness of LaCroix, too subtle for them to appreciate without consistent ongoing effort. (I also like to point out to my students that I’m doing this to them: they are very nice about it.) Anyway, Choi’s relationship to LaCroix is different than mine, but I was very happy to see her sing the praises of this wonderful beverage.
My initial reluctance was partly due to the cans’ hideousness. The first time I drank LaCroix, I half expected it to be filled with self-tanner. Or Axe body spray. The cans look somehow simultaneously obnoxious and earnest, as if they’re trying to appeal to Canadian ravers or the sort of people who have septum piercings and shop at Desigual. With its bootleg Van Gogh swirls and the not-quite Yves Klein blue logo, LaCroix would look right at home nestled in a neoprene koozie screen-printed to look like an acid-washed denim jacket. Everything about the can suggests trashy fun.
Lisa Duggan’s recent blog post on her relationship to queerness, “Escape Velocity,” is lovely and helpful — a great post to read if you teach or study queer theory, but also just a clear and honest piece of writing about the different personal needs our sexuality can help fulfill. Like Hild and Blue Lily, Lily Blue, really, this is writing about our how our needs surpass easy categories.
I didn’t come to lesbianism via the standard 1970s coming out narrative. I never experienced a suppressed inner desire for women that finally found expression, both personal and political. I hit on lesbianism as an exit strategy, an escape narrative, a way not to repeat my mother’s life, my own childhood domestic confinement. I experienced gender dysphoria in that femininity felt like a trap, but I liked the clothes a lot. At first I tried the then currently fashionable androgyny, in flannel shirts and boots. But I left my flannel shirts unbuttoned below the décolletage, and felt desire for creatures with many so-called masculine features. I was thrilled to discover that I could find thrillingly sexy masculine partners who could not, or would not, reproduce the gendered norms of domesticity and sociality. I could wear skirts without regrets. In that time and place, queer life appeared to me as a free zone, a place for experimentation and innovation in the forms of gender, intimacy and social life, a landscape for desire as yet uncolonized by the lifelong monogamy of the couple form legally enshrined in wedlock.
Not reading, but: I wanted to really love Carly Rae Jepson’s new song, but in fact the pop song I can’t turn off this week is BØRNS “Seeing Stars” (it’s not new, but I just heard it).
I had not seen a new post on WorstCats for quite some time and somehow stumbled on it again this week: update that it is still awesome.
Finally, Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard. This book, which I only mention because it debuted mysteriously at number one on the NYT Bestseller list (???), is not one I’d recommend reading. But it was entertainingly dialed-up and rollicking, with crazy rock-exploding set pieces and strange politics, sort of like the YA version of Jupiter Ascending, a movie I quite enjoyed. If the Wachowski’s make a movie version of Red Queen then you should definitely go, especially if they cast Channing Tatum (the book is actually better if you imagine the lead dude being played by Channing Tatum — though, what’s not).