No new thoughts
It feels good to return to the newsletter form. I’m doing it now because I have more thoughts on books I’ve recently read than can fit on social media or than I care to pitch editors. I always want to know what writers are reading, so I find myself dreaming of a website of short book reviews by writers. You can find these in some places at some times, but not reliably and not enough. Maybe this should turn into that.
A lot of what I’ve been reading lately is recently published and hyper-contemporary. Books that chronicle the present moment rather faithfully, but little that pushes into any new thinking. One notable exception is British poet and philosopher Denise Riley’s Say Something Back / Time Lived, Without Its Flow, a very short book about grieving the sudden death of her adult son. The first half is poetry, the second is philosophy or philosophical essay. She writes unsentimentally. That alone is a kind of shock to the system, a maternal grief that doesn’t howl (at least not here), that is routed through the author’s intellect. Writing this way enables Riley to plumb the banality of grief, the way loss entails a daily repeating sense of displacement, a permanent misplacement, as in “I know my son was just here a minute ago.” She argues that grief does not just "distort” time, but removes one from time. “Simply,” she writes, “you are no longer in time.” To me — reading about grief for a book project — this very slim volume is filled with new thinking. Haunting, challenging, exciting thinking.
Some other things I’ve just read:
I was favorably disposed to this one for a number of reasons. I purchased it while in a very good mood on a rainy day at Galignani in Paris on my first solo travel excursion since Covid. I wandered through the bookstore wondering how many volumes could reasonably fit in my suitcase (already bursting with purloined hotel toiletries) and felt a deep sense of contentment.
The book also seemed to be about the kind of mood I was in—it's a memoir about the author's impulsive decision to move to Berlin and seemed like it would be filled with musings on the lonely, awkward, life-affirming experience of being somewhere else.
I loved Liptrot’s debut, an especially good sobriety memoir called The Outrun. In it, the author returns home to a sheep farm in Orkney, one of the archipelago of islands in Northern Scotland, to repair herself, repair her estrangement from herself, and she balances wild nature writing with her story of stumbling toward a new serenity.
I wanted to love The Instant, but I didn't. I liked a lot of it—descriptions of Berlin’s appealing bohemian enclaves and the author's online dating foibles were entertaining. Musings on the role of technology in our lives were unremarkable. It's heartbreaking to say, but it's all fairly self-evident at this point. The uncanniness of a moon phases app texting you about lunar events, etc. We're just one big undulating algorithm, our alienation eminently mappable.
Liptrot borrows a trick (or a tic) from Andy Warhol’s diaries, in which he refers to himself, Andy, as A, and every other person in his midst as B. She reports on a cast of B’s here: “B, a Brit, is studying for a master’s….B, an American, has got a job as a nanny and is studying German.” This playful subordination of all other characters to a central A, which is to say a central I, really irked me, even though maybe in effect it’s what all memoirs do. It wasn’t consequential, and yet it seemed to emblematize something about the kind of self-regard powering the book.
Liptrot does a kind of nature writing here too, sharing her preoccupation with the moon and hawks and raccoons, but I didn't quite buy it. Why did she so badly want to see a raccoon on the streets of Berlin? She never really says, never shows what it would mean. Ultimately The Instant turns into a book about an ill-fated relationship with a guy, but the entanglement seems so short and so insignificant that it's hard to get on board with the number of pages it claims in the book or how much it derails the author. Who am I to judge (truly), but in spite of pretty sentences, I wasn't fully along for this ride.
And two novels about race in media and publishing, among other things
Virtue by Hermione Hoby and The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
These are both extremely readable, very now novels about characters navigating the white worlds of legacy media and prestige publishing.
Virtue follows a white intern at a literary magazine who’s a little bit in love with a fellow intern, a smart, dynamic, young Black woman who is more engaged in social justice and so reflects back to him his own failings, real and perceived. Then he falls under the spell of a magnetic couple with a bunch of kids (the woman is a famous artist in her 40s) and spends a summer at their rustic/lavish rich-bohemian country house. I welcome most millennial tales of moral struggle and I looove a drama-at-the-summer-home novel, so this was fun. I also recommend Hoby’s quirkily erudite debut novel Neon in Daylight.
The Other Black Girl has it all, in a very blockbuster way. It’s about a young Black assistant (the only one) at a Knopf-type publishing house. She’s obsessed with a Black editor who worked there decades ago and who mysteriously disappeared from public view after ushering a singular bestseller into the world. First, another Black assistant starts working at the publishing house, and the two kindle a friendship that’s equal parts wary and warm. Then, the protagonist starts receiving anonymous, threatening notes at work and the book turns into a thriller. It’s fun and clever and also a view onto the ways whiteness can warp, disrupt, and fuck up relationships in places like these. I’m really looking forward to the Hulu adaptation, which is in the works. 🍿