Every time I start writing one of these posts, two things happen: I wonder why I thought this was a good idea in the first place, and I fight the temptation to write in a slightly twee sort of third person voice: “As Read ALL the Things is now working at a bookshop, she feels she may have even less time to devote to the admirable yet fruitless quest to read all the unread books in the house. Attention must be paid to the new books, after all.”
I am, in fact, now working in a bookshop, though I still have two weeks until I’m full-time there, and I feel, somewhat dramatically, that I ought to spend those two weeks reading books published before last month. But that sounds like a negative thing, and really I’m ridiculously excited and also sort of terrified – not of the bookshop job, but of all the things I think I’ve been avoiding doing. Working part time felt, a lot of the time, like not really settling into my life, and so it was easier than usual to put off things like looking for freelance work, or writing this half-assed blog, or starting the other blog I’m super excited about, or any number of other things. This is backwards. I realize that. I should have been using the time left over around my part-time hours to do all the things that needed doing.
The idea and the actuality are not always even funhouse reflections of each other.
But books. I’ve been ducking my head and hiding from some of the books in my teetering stuff-I-read-and-meant-to-write-about pile. In one instance, the reason is simple: I put Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s Local on the shelf all quiet-like because I loved it, and loved the difficult, jerky, painful journey of its main character, and didn’t feel I could do justice to it at all – especially not the art. All I wanted to talk about was how I remember buying the book in Powell’s Hawthorne store after lunch with my friend Graeme, who I imagine was probably shocked I hadn’t read it yet. (I might be imagining that part.) I’d recently come across the very first instance in which my name appeared in a book as the author of a quoted review, and I was awkwardly delighted, and wanted to show him. The book in question wasn’t on the shelves, but I walked out with Local, and the memory stuck. If I could turn something as simple as that – an afternoon with a friend, the little details you share, the stories that cross the table over lunch – into a beautiful, heavily lined, emotionally resonant comic in a handful of issues, then I’d be able to talk about Local.
Nick Antosca’s Midnight Picnic is no easier to talk about. It was a gift from Toby, who I think was making a habit of giving it to people, given that there are two copies in the apartment I now share. I didn’t love it the way the men I know do, but I can see why they do; it’s just that I’m looking at it through glass, like seeing wildlife in an exhibit rather than at home in the woods. Its darkness is so particular, its strange vision so sharp. Some books are weird to read on the subway, and this one – in the dark, in the woods, in the strange place where the main character finds himself, led there by a small dead boy – will nudge you into a pocket universe where all the noise is muffled and you only see Bram, the dead boy, and the page.
There’s a funny, treacherous patch of common ground between Midnight Picnic and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, which you’ve read about in approximately 18,375 places by now. I wish I’d written about it sooner, but it was one of those books – I’d see reviews that were skeptical, or that held the book at arm’s length, like it had gotten mildewy or stopped making sense, and they made me want to curl up around the book, to hold Ava and Ossie and Kiwi Bigtree close to my chest where they’d be safe and the book would stay warm and loved. I couldn’t quite believe, at first, that Russell could sustain the voice of Swamplandia! It’s a daredevil act just like the one Ava’s mom did with the gators, a sort of trust fall with her own talents. When the story starts to get darker – the economy has its way with the characters, and the outside world intrudes and changes everyone; you can’t live in an amusement park forever – it does get slippery, and it almost gets away from the author. But the voice is so true, and the places so real, that it still works. It might take a little piece of you and drop it in the swamp somewhere, or at least trap it between the pages.
Mostly I’ve been reading books I’m getting really attached to, but I took a skeptical break from such things with Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which is like the slightly bonkers extroverted cousin of Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives. (Surprise! I connected more with the introvert.) I read the McGonigal book because I wanted to see if I was wrong to instinctively loathe the word “gamification” when I started to hear it at SXSW last year. Every time someone said “gamification,” I heard, “Some other bullshit pretend thing we can sell you, or use to sell you something!”
McGonigal, admirably, rarely if ever uses that dratted word. She has a delightfully idealistic take on games and gamers, which means she almost never addresses things like sexism or bullying, or the fact that a lot of video gamers just want to blow shit up and kill a lot of aliens/enemies/whatever. I kind of admire this ability to write only about the gamers who are smart, compassionate folks who just aren’t getting enough out of their everyday lives, and whose intelligence and skills – many honed by games – might be harnessed for the greater good AND put to use in their own lives in more effective and fulfilling ways. (Of course, it’s not just about video games, but also about Chore Wars and games you play in public and games that help science and all kinds of really cool shit that I’m not sure I would call “games” so much as “more interesting ways to think about how we live,” so.) Her points about the unsatisfying nature of much of ordinary life, particularly work, are valid and clear, but the book gets repetitive and the inspiration starts to dissipate about halfway through. I don’t feel like she’s trying to sell me something, but I don’t feel convinced, either. I finished Reality is Broken feeling like I didn’t have the whole picture, so I feel awkward about all my thoughts about it and keep editing this paragraph.
There are still four books next to me on the sofa, but I told myself these posts couldn’t go very far over 1,000 words, and here I am, blowing past my word count. As usual. Up next: two books that came out last year, and one from the ’60s!