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The Reading Room: September '22
August, O where did you go
Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh
Ducks, Kate Beaton
Denial, Jon Raymond
Poison For Breakfast, by Lemony Snicket
Mists of Avalon, Marion immer Bradley
Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Isaac Fitzgerald
Nickolas Nickelby, Charles Dickens
Observant Machinists will note that the Reading Room, a staple of this publication since its inception, which was last March, took a little breather for the month of August. I was, as those same observant Machinists will also note, on tour and while you might think that hours and hours of idle time between breakfast and showtime affords one ample time to read, I don’t tend to get a lot of reading done on the road. I did manage to claw my way through the grotesqueries of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona and come out the other end a little worse for wear.
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I really enjoyed Moshfegh’s last book, My Year Of Rest and Relaxation. I found its particular brand of drear pretty disarming and funny. Reading the jacket copy for Lapvona, I figured it was right up my alley. Medieval peasants? Despotic lords? Sheep? Sign me up! But I have to admit, the level of pure, unrestrained grody-ness was a bit too much for even me. I recognize it was a comedy, and it was funny in spots, but I felt like it just couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and I couldn’t help but wonder if a better story was hiding behind this fortress of poop and puke jokes.
Mists of Avalon continues to haunt my bedside table. It’s slow going, to be honest. And my fit of excitement about all things Arthurian has subsided a little. I don’t expect to abandon it, though. I appreciate the level of batshittery, if such a word exists, in Bradley’s retelling of the myths — lots of weird, wild pagan magic happening — and it genuinely is nice to see the tale told from the perspective of the women involved. I still can’t shake Bradley’s biography, though, and what an apparent monster she and her husband were IRL. Bleagh.
Somewhere along the line, in the last few months, I managed to sneak in Lemony Snicket’s Poison For Breakfast, which was strange and funny and moving. I spent a lot of time wondering exactly who this book was for, assuming when I picked it up that it was targeted squarely at the typical Snicket readership: middle grade readers. I imagine it would be a pretty precocious middle grader indeed who would gobble this little gem up; a lot of the concepts and the structure of the story are awfully sophisticated. In some ways, it read a lot like Baby’s First Postmodern Novel. Cheers to Mr. Snicket for having the audacity to write whatever the fuck kind of book he wants to write, for whomever might read it. I think he’s earned that.
Because I was packing light for my book tour and could not see myself lugging the 875 pages of Mists on my back for a week, I selected the slimmest thing I could find on my to-read list, which happened to be an ARC of Jon Raymond’s new book, Denial. It’s been lingering on that list for many moons now, but I just hadn’t got to it, as ensnared as I was in one weird tangent or another. It fit nicely into the top pocket of my backpack; Denial would be my travel companion. Within a couple chapters, I was totally absorbed. Think near-future speculative fiction. A journalist for a Portland newspaper goes after a fugitive climate denialist in a world where the CEOs of major fossil fuel companies have been put on trial. Jon’s a great writer; I found myself surprised and moved at every turn of the story. Come for the dystopian fiction, stick around for the lovely, luminous portrait of a solar eclipse. I expect Jon drew his inspiration for this scene from life — we witnessed the same event in the central Willamette Valley in 2017. It happens that Carson, Hank, Milo and I were returning in our van, following a massive line of cars, inching up some rural highway, when we saw Jon and his family parked by the side of the road with a flat tire. We heaved them all into the van and brought them to the nearest Les Schwab tire shop. There is a flat tire incident in the book, but it’s before the eclipse, and there’s no Vanagon rescue that occurs, so I can’t say that I’m enshrined in this book. Alas. Anyway, Denial out now and it’s really good. You should read it.
On the day of my second book tour event, in Petaluma, CA, I got a text from Carson demanding that I pick up Kate Beaton’s new graphic novel, Ducks, for her. Copperfield’s Books was kind enough to supply a copy. Before I handed it over to Carson, however, I had to read it myself. I did so in the course of a few afternoons and was blown away! It’s the story of Kate’s two years working in the oil sands in Ontario, Canada, as she saves up enough money to pay off her student loans. It says a lot about the oil industry, the way it ravages the environment and the people who work inside it; it says a lot about toxic masculinity, particularly the sort that breeds in places where there are very few women and fewer safeguards to make men accountable for their actions and behavior. Ugh, gutting. It’s a very brave book, too, and I admire Kate a lot for telling it. The sad thing is that I read it in the space of perhaps two-three hours — and graphic novels are such laborious things, I tend to feel sheepish for how quickly I mill through them.
Nicholas Nickleby is still finding its way into my brainpan when I’m driving or folding laundry, and I expect it will keep doing that for the foreseeable future. Nick, as I call him, we’re familiar now, Nick has just quit the theater troupe and is heading back to London. Miss Nickleby’s tormenters are to be put on notice — Nick “Knuckles” Nickleby is back in town!
Isaac Fitzgerald, my in-conversation partner for my Brooklyn book event, gave me a copy of his new memoir, Dirtbag Massachusetts, and I’m digging into that now. Really enjoying it. But that will be a story for another Reading Room at another time. For now, I will withhold too much comment.
So what are you reading? What’s keeping you afloat?