BOOK PERSON | Vol. 13
The pure pleasure of reading an essay, and more love for Mexican Gothic.
|Michelle Cyca||Mar 7||1|
This week I’ve been reading A Burning, a debut novel by Megha Majumdar, a propulsive, vivid novel about the impersonal cruelty of public opinion and the dangers of personal ambition, playing out in the wake of a terrorist attack in India. It’s hard to call something so stressful “a fun read” but it’s thoughtful, moving, extremely relevant to the way events are endlessly refracted and analyzed in the news and on social media until it’s possible to forget that there are real people involved.
I also have a big pile of books by my bed, waiting to be read and then reviewed. Was it a smart idea to turn my only hobby into another job? I guess we’ll find out! For now, I’m excited about all of them— especially one recommended by this week’s BOOK PERSON, Mandy Len Catron, called Victoria Sees It. When you read her description of it you’ll understand why it was immediately irresistible to me.
Mandy and I met a few years ago in Palm Springs, and since then I have loved reading every single one of her brilliant and expansively generous explorations of relationships. I recommend reading her essay collection, How to Fall in Love with Anyone; perusing the archives of her wonderful column for The Rumpus, Mixed Feelings; and immediately subscribing to her newsletter, The Loneliness Project. But first, read all about her favourite books:
Where are you from, and where do you live now?
I grew up in rural Appalachian Virginia and now I live in Vancouver, BC.
Have you ever read a book about your hometown?
When I was 18, I read The Poisonwood Bible and became so infatuated that I wrote Oprah Winfrey a letter pleading my case to join the Book Club dinner party with Barbara Kingsolver. I didn’t get invited to the show (shocking!) but, oddly enough, Kingsolver moved to the outskirts of my tiny rural Virginia hometown a couple years later. Her novels Prodigal Summer and Flight Behaviour are both set in the area.
The fun postscript of this story is that I finally got to meet Kingsolver many years later—in Australia of all places—when we were doing book events at the same literary festivals. She was the absolute nicest, despite my total lack of chill. I still feel starry-eyed thinking about it.
Describe your literary tastes.
I read basically three kinds of books:
“Literary” novels and memoir. I put literary in quotes because it’s such a snobby, loaded word. But what I mean is: books that feel exciting to me because they are well-crafted all the way down to the sentence level. A few years ago a made a “no novels by white dudes“ rule and I’ve more or less stuck to it with a few exceptions. This practice has not disappointed me!
I read a lot of what I’d call nonfiction ideas books. Usually this is research for my own writing projects.
Lately I’ve gotten into graphic memoirs so I’m trying to have one of those on my library hold shelf at all times.
I also read a ton of essays on the internet. The essay is my one true love as both a reader and a writer. I just love seeing another person’s mind at work on the page.
What is your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?
The original Powell’s in Portland was a store that, when I finally stepped inside, felt like a total dream. But the bookstore closest to my heart is probably the one closest to my home: the Book Warehouse on Main Street in Vancouver.
I lived upstairs from the store for many years (like literally right above it). They keep dog treats behind the counter so every day my dog Roscoe would make a hard right into the store before his walk. As a result we got to know all the employees pretty well and, when my book came out, I got to put on a dress and walk downstairs for the launch. Even Roscoe got to come! I’ve always complained about how unfriendly Vancouver can be, but the Book Warehouse finally made me feel like part of my neighbourhood.
How do you choose your books?
I have a long mental list of books I’m excited about, so I’m searching for a new read. I seems like this list appears in my mind by osmosis but I think that’s because I’m surrounded by readers and writers who are just always talking about books.
I read a lot of books written by people I know (though not as many as I would like to if I had the time). I pick up books mentioned in podcasts I listen to regularly (a favourite source of interesting ideas books is the Ezra Klein Show). I also read a lot of book reviews. And I’ve picked up books I’ve seen in this newsletter! Sometimes I’ll buy a book I know nothing about except that someone I love loved it.
The only books I screen in advance are audiobooks. I have to like the narrator’s delivery or I just can’t stick with it. (And I say this as someone who did a very mediocre job reading her own audiobook. I’m so sorry listeners!)
What are the last five books you read?
The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis
Reproduction by Ian Williams
The Enduring Kiss by Massimo Recalcatti (This isn’t a book I would’ve picked but Washington Post asked me to review this so stay tuned!)
How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong
Victoria Sees It by Carrie Jenkins (Carrie is my friend and this book isn’t out until April but if you like the sound of a delightfully strange queer psychological thriller, you should get this book. It’s like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History meets Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.)
What book is next to your bed right now?
I just picked up Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s graphic memoir Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption from the VPL.
What's the best book you read last year?
I loved Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half so much I cried when it was over. (I definitely recommend this as an audiobook!)
Did you ever read a book for school, or out of a sense of duty to the classic canon, and find it was unexpectedly good?
In my undergraduate senior seminar class, I had to lead the conversation on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I guess I was not expecting the man with the giant white beard to produce something so queer and celebratory and erotic? My professor (who, come to think of it, had a very Whitman-esque beard himself) gave me his copy of The Collected Whitman, which I can see on my shelf as I type this.
Do you have a favourite genre?
For me, reading an essay feels a lot like sitting down to a conversation with a really savvy, thoughtful friend. Essayists are curious, passionate skeptics! And that is exactly the kind of person I want to spend my time with. The essay is, by nature, an exploratory genre—more interested in asking questions than answering them. It doesn’t try to evangelize or persuade. It doesn’t trade in soundbites or political agendas. For all of these reasons, writing an essay is an inherently slow, deliberate process and reading them is pure pleasure. I think of the essay as a necessary counterpoint to endless social-media feeds and the 24-hour news cycle.
If you’re interested in checking out some essay collections, a few that I love are: The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, Feel Free by Zadie Smith, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee, Shrill by Lindy West, Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I like David Sedaris when he’s more serious, David Foster-Wallace when his guard is down, Scaachi Koul when she’s fired up. I could keep going but I will exercise some chill and move to the next question.
Do you read poetry? If so, do you have a favourite collection or poem?
More than reading poetry, I love hearing poets read their work. One of my favourite Vancouver poets (the list is long!) is Raoul Fernandez. His book Transmitter and Receiver is so unpretentious and warm and funny. His website features an animated video for his poem “Mixtape” that is absolutely worth a minute and twenty-four seconds of your time.
What's your comfort read?
When I can’t sleep I turn on one of the Harry Potter audiobooks. (I’m partial to the version read by Stephen Fry!) Working my way through the series while taking long walks with the go got me through a particularly hard, sad break up. Like many people, I’ve been disappointed by Rowling’s insistent transphobia, so that has complicated my relationship with the HP brand. But I still feel this deep attachment to the world inside the pages and, when I feel particularly lonely, it’s the place I want to escape to. (If anyone can recommend a similarly absorbing audiobook series, I am up for some late-stage-pandemic dog-walk survival escapism!)
Generally speaking, I'm interested in books you love, but I am also desperate to know: What’s a widely-praised, critically-acclaimed book that you hated?
I am the only person I know who really disliked The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I teach creative nonfiction and, when we get to memoir, someone inevitably mentions it as a favourite. But for me, the real pleasure of reading memoir is in the reflection—I want to know what the writer makes of their experience. I want to vicariously absorb their hard-earned wisdom! But Walls offers no commentary on her experiences. People who love the book seem to love it for this exact quality: it has the propulsive, scenic quality of a novel. But if I want something novelistic, I’ll just read a novel. If I’m reading memoir, give me the meta-commentary of Maggie Nelson or Kiese Laymon or go back to the library!
If you read scary books, what's the most terrifying novel you've read?
Mexican Gothic was my Halloween audiobook this year and I loved how totally weird and creepy it was. And, bonus, it inspired me to learn more about mushrooms, so my subsequent read was the delightful (but not scary) Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake.
What's a book that helped you believe in the fundamental decency of humanity? (A question I borrowed from Mandy.)
I will answer my own question and say that if you’re looking for redemption without sugar coating, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is the book for you.
I’m echoing Mandy’s call for audiobook series that offer for late-stage-pandemic survival escapism. I have a confession, actually, which is that I have never listened to an audiobook. If you have a favourite, please share!