sarah mesle

What I’ve Been Reading

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).

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Restive Feelings: A Postcard from Xinjiang

By Alec Ash

It was the first day of the Chinese new year [2014] in Urumqi, not that many Uighurs particularly cared. It’s not their holiday. But it was also a Friday, which meant the biggest weekly public prayer at the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar itself, the world’s largest, was closed. Outside it, hundreds of Muslims laid out their mats, kneeled and prostrated themselves to the yodelling refrain of “Allah Akbar” coming from the speaker system.

Across the street, a clump of security guards watched them, looking bored. From their appearance they were all Uighur, or at least all part Uighur. It was winter, almost -20ºC, and they wore fur hats, warming their hands in their pockets. Behind the guards, in an armored van parked opposite the Bazaar, were soldiers. One of them was doubled over the driving wheel, sleeping. Continue reading

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What Is Wrong with Chinese Universities?

By Austin L. Dean

It depends who you ask. A Communist Party official might tell you that the most pressing problem is pernicious “Western” values espoused by certain university professors. Colleges and universities, they might continue, “need to champion core socialist values.” University professors have sometimes expressed a different view: not being able to access resources like Google Scholar, they argue, prevents them from doing their job. Of course, students might list the usual litany of problems: small dorm rooms, boring teachers, bad food in the cafeteria.

If you ask this question of Zhang Ming, a professor at People’s University in Beijing, he will probably ask how much time you have — because he has a lot to say. Continue reading

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Rereading I Am the Messenger

By Angela Yuen

I Am the Messenger, by Marcus Zusak, is an old book for me because I have held it and absorbed it so many times. Readers can always memorize the feelings of certain books in their hands, I think. Our favorite books, the ones that we keep and reread, have a sort of battered heft to them. Some books have older souls, I tell my friends, and they agree. The souls of books are always a joint effort; one part author, one part reader, and the old ones are the books we keep giving part of ourselves to.

I tend to reread books around the Winter and New Year season, I’ve noticed. It’s a combination of the weather and the people, old relatives and warm houses. I like the comforting repetitiveness of rereading books, though many people tell me it retracts from the experience because everything in the story is already known. Then again, the story of Ed Kennedy, the underage cabdriver in Messenger, is the sort of story that leaves you wondering how much you really know.  Continue reading

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In Manchuria: A Q & A With Author Michael Meyer

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As I wrote back in December when we at the LARB China Blog were suggesting titles for holiday shopping lists, my 2015 recommendation for a must-read China book is In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer. A former Peace Corps volunteer and freelance journalist in China, Meyer now teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh (and is also, full disclosure, a fellow in the Public Intellectuals Program I co-direct at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations). While Meyer’s first book examined life in Beijing’s narrow and twisty hutongs, or alleyways, as they faced demolition, In Manchuria moves north, to the vast expanses of China’s northeast. Using the village of Wasteland as his home base, Meyer criss-crosses the region, stopping in major cities and forgotten hamlets as he explores Manchuria’s history and reflects on the changes underway in the Chinese countryside today. I recently interviewed Meyer by email; if you’d like to see him discuss In Manchuria in person, check out his book tour dates here. Continue reading

philip-levine

Hey Phil

By Juan Felipe Herrera

for Phil Levine, RIP

 

They are writing about you Phil – you know
good stuff — the prizes Detroit and that
poem where you said in past lives you
were that wild sun-crested fox being chased
by “ladies and gentlemen on horseback” —
you said you would wake up with the poem
ready that it slipped untangled from a dream
all you had to do was sit up and write
the stage was a poem too – even though
most of us were too prepared you
preferred to joke before we went on
before the poetry light hit us on the face
it did not matter to you – you just carved
chiseled punctured rotated danced
and whirred past a distant gate

 

Yale_Law_School_Class_of_1883

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few (But Not Becoming a Lawyer Isn’t One)

By Seth Greenland

My father was the biggest Yankee fan I knew but he never wanted me to be Mickey Mantle. He wanted me to be Mickey Mantle’s lawyer. He grew up poor in the Bronx and always viewed the Law from the perspective of an urchin in a Dickens novel. The Law was grand, exalted, and highly remunerative. Saying one’s son was a lawyer not only sounded both refined and prosperous, to a Depression era kid it represented the Platonic ideal of order in a chaotic world. And I bought it. Of my high school and college friends, six became lawyers. My friend of longest standing — we met in first grade — was an outlier. Desperate to be Ernest Hemingway, he went to Europe, he drank wine, he wrote a novel (currently in a drawer). And then he went to law school. Today, he’s a trusts and estates lawyer. For the first twenty-one years of my life that was the future: suit, tie, oxford cloth shirt, polished hard-soled shoes, court appearances, filing of briefs, whispered conferences in judges’ chambers, and, oh, that reliable paycheck. Continue reading

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An Unclean Break

Image: Antoine Bruy, from “Scrublands”

By Joanna Chen

A parachute appears, floating in a cloudless sky. It lands with a bump in the sand. A small figure unhitches herself, climbs to her feet. She pauses, brushes sand off her blue jeans. That girl is me and I have come back to the same spot where I landed in the Negev desert as a teenager, to remember.

I have been putting off coming here for a long time. I book a room at the Field School, then cancel, then rebook. The man answers me tiredly the third time I call, reeling off what the room has to offer: bunk beds for six, sheets and towels, an air-conditioner I later discover does not work. That’s it. Do I want it or not. When I lived there as a student in high school, it was a small room littered with clothes, cigarette stubs, a faded curtain blown by the hot desert wind in an open window. The view is the same. I used to lie on my bed and look through the window at the white of the wadi overlooking my room. Now my son is here, in another building, probably still asleep, perhaps shifting slightly in the bed as he sleeps. It soothes me to think he is there; when I think of being here without him I’m filled with the old fears of being engulfed by a desert landscape that became a metaphor for despair. Continue reading

Speed dating

Bare Branches: Speed-Dating Games on Singles Day

By Alec Ash

Just as the cold winds sweep the last leaves off Beijing’s trees, November 11 was Singles, or “bare branch,” Day in China (guanggunjie, after a Chinese term for single men). It’s chosen for the four number ones of 11/11, an appropriate date to be dateless. In a country with 118 boys born for every 100 girls, the main function of the festival seems to be making all of China’s single twigs feel inadequate. When I texted “What are you doing this guanggunjie?” to a handful of partnerless Chinese friends, I got back the same curt reply from three: “Sleeping.” I’ll know better than to ask next year.

Singles Day is mostly about online shopping sales now, but there are also a spattering of singles’ events in Beijing on the night. Speed dating is increasingly popular in China, as young urban people in full-time jobs try to find a compatible life partner. I went along to one for a look. Continue reading

ray bradbury home image

OBITUARY NOTICE FOR 10265 Cheviot Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90064

By Noel Anenberg

LOS ANGELES, 10265 CHEVIOT DRIVE – HOME TO RAY BRADBURY

CONSTRUCTED 1937 – DEMOLISHED 2015

10265 Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, home of fifty years to National Book Foundation medal winner Ray Bradbury, his wife Maggie of fifty-four years, and their four daughters. Basement office to Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, and myriad other works. Demolished by Pritzker Prize winning architect, Thomas Mayne. Artifacts from Bradbury’s basement office may be permanently viewed at The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Survived by the homes of Carl Sandburg, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickerson, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Frederick O’Douglass and others.

In lieu of flowers please send contributions to The Los Angeles Review of Books.