A year in reading, or, did I do anything besides read?

It’s clear I’m not going to finish another book this year — I’m only about halfway through Dune, and everything else can go hang in the meantime. (Spoiler: Dune is great!) Per my Goodreads tracking, I finished 76 books this year, which is a personal record in my GR history. This doesn’t count books I abandoned, even if I rated them, and it doesn’t count every re-read. But 76! Gosh! I have no idea how that happened.

Another day I’ll do a post about some horizons I tried to expand, and other notable things like favorites. For now, I just wanted to throw stats down before the year expired. Fun! Statistics!!

Oldest book: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James (published 1904)
2016 resolution: Even more ghost stories. I read this one in an accidental batch with some other ghostie stories, haunted mansions, possession, the like. It was a good run, even if it was in May, not October.

Longest book (by Goodreads page count): Sabriel by Garth Nix.
Really? This didn’t seem long. It seemed very short. I wish I had wordcount. I bet other things were a lot longer, since this was mass market format, and YA. It was long overdue to read, though, and I really enjoyed it.

Average rating: 3.8 stars
This is higher than I expected. I guess I’m pretty liberal with 4 stars. I’m curious, though…

Rating distribution:

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 16
🌟🌟🌟🌟 = 37
🌟🌟🌟 = 19
🌟🌟 = 1
🌟 = 1

Huh. Yep, liberal with those 4-star ratings. But that’s a lot of 5-star ratings for me, too! I’m super stingy with them, historically. Look, 5 stars is 100%, perfect, A++. If I give 5 stars, it probably means I’m blind to the faults of the book (even if I’m aware of them, I don’t care) or I truly think it’s a Peak Book. I guess there was a lot of the former this year? Or I’m going soft.

Largest divergence from average rating: In other words, these are some the books that I liked a whole lot more than most people. I’m not going to note the ones I liked a whole lot less, because that feels unnecessarily mean.

Book covers for the four books I rated far higher than the average Goodreads user.
Someone psychoanalyze me and figure out why I’m an outlier in loving these books.
  • Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola (I’m a sucker for Emily Carroll.)
  • Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King (The audiobook helped, I think? Also, this was the first King I read.)
  • What Did Miss Darrington See? an anthology of feminist supernatural fiction (In part, probably, because it’s not rated by that many people. You should read it and rate it.)
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne (I get it. I really do. It’s not for most people and it’s spiky and weird. But I loved it.)

Anyway, here’s the Goodreads year in books for me. More later.

Inside my heart beats like a girl

Did you know No Cities to Love, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, came out this year? Because I swear it’s been running in my veins for a decade.

Just thinking about the fact that Sleater-Kinney came back together for an album and a tour after nine years apart turns up the little pilot light inside of me. I can’t believe I got to see them in February, in between giant blizzards. I can’t believe how good the album is. All of their albums. They’re all on fire, sizzling, aching, desperate, strong. So as the year ends, I really want to say something more about them. About the album. About what it means to me, and how important it’s been. But I don’t know how.

I want an anthem
A singular anthem
An answer and a force
To feel rhythm in silence
A weapon not violence
A power, power source

Okay. Forget my past. Forget when and where and how I discovered Sleater-Kinney. Forget the electricity every time I listened to “Words and Guitar,” the utter shock when The Woods came out like a freight train, different and exactly right. Forget how I want parts of “One Beat” tattooed on my stone heart. Forget all of that, and remember that they broke up in 2006 and I never saw them. Remember that they went on to do other things, and I thought, that’s good. Portlandia is fun. The Corin Tucker Project is great. Wild Flag is a racehorse.

The weird thing is, if you had asked me my top five favorite bands a year before S-K came back, I might not have thought to mention them. I never stopped listening to them, but I would’ve answered with something else, and maybe when I thought about it a while I’d say “Oh yeah, and I still like Sleater-Kinney.” But the second there was hint of new life, new growth, new shoots furiously springing up from a plot I’d been walking by every day, well, it was like some secret dream had come true.

No Cities to Love made Sleater-Kinney essential to me again. Essential to me being conscious, to understanding some inarticulate part of me that is never satisfied.

A while back I read Girls to the Front which is a sort of history of riot grrrl, then I saw The Punk Singer, which is about Kathleen Hanna, and then to culminate it all came No Cities to Love. Like the world was reminding me how important all this was to me when I was a teenager, angry without understanding why, dissatisfied and yearning. It all came back as I’ve grown up, growing somewhat steadier, finding kindness and some contentment, and it came back to remind me that I’m still not satisfied. Some things may be better than they were, both in the world and just for me personally. But it’s not good enough. There are still things that make me angry and dissatisfied, keep me yearning for tomorrow to be better, only now, maybe, I can articulate some of it.

My baby loves me, I’m so angry
Anger makes me a modern girl
Took my money, I couldn’t buy nothin’
I’m sick of this brave new world

I’m not saying these feelings are good and useful. They’re desperate and hard to manage. They’re rough on you, inside. Sometimes you feel useless and powerless, no matter how many ways you think you might be able to do something — something else in life gets in the way, or you act and nothing changes, or you act and see something else, and it’s never-ending, you’re always wanting more, you’re always wanting better, but. But the world is the world. There’s always something. You will always have this feeling. What it needs is a sound, a voice, another person claiming it with you.

I close my eyes and think hard enough and I can still see and hear and feel the way Corin clung to the mic and sang-screamed-wailed “gimme love” near the close of the concert; I can feel the beat of the drums and the throb of guitars and the way Carrie eats the line “leave them nothing to devour”; I am transported back and singing along to “Modern Girl” with everyone else all of us feeling every damn word. I’m not one for Group Experiences, but this is my tribe, this and #spacewitches.

I feel so much stronger now that you’re here
We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear

The videos below are from my concert, but a video can never ever capture the live concert experience, especially for a band like Sleater-Kinney. But for what it’s worth, I was a little farther back than the first video, but on the other side, in front of Carrie.

Y’all, I love Sleater-Kinney a lot. Just wait until I get my hands on Carrie’s memoir.

TWIR: Vattu is really good and you should read it.

This week has not been that heavy on reading. I don’t know what I’ve been doing instead. Forgetting to go to the library! Not going to the grocery store! Working! Holiday parties! Cat-bothering!

Anyway, I did manage a few reading things of note.

vattubannerI finally sat down and read book one of Vattu. I’ve loved Evan Dahm’s work since he was posting Rice Boy. I love it so much I can’t bear to stay up-to-date. I don’t read his comics as he posts them online, though I’m terribly tempted now! I love the experience of the larger collection of pages, and I do read differently on the computer. I’ll just have to wait until I can pick up book two!

Anyway, Vattu is really good, and wordless for long stretches, showing off this beautiful and strange world and telling a story through character movement, color, mirrored poses, tiny changes of expression… It’s the story of a girl who is born into a tribe when everything seems to be changing. And it is great.

In various small bits of downtime this week, I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and it is even better than I remember. Is that possible? It was always my favorite (Half-Blood Prince was a strong contender but I don’t think it beats PoA) but it’s been so long since I read it. I forgot how funny it is, and how tightly plotted (for what it is; i’m sure someone could come in and poke holes in it, but please don’t). But of course the real thing making me enjoy it So Dang Much is that I’m no less of a Marauders fan now than I ever was. Bias, I have it.

Short things

My friend Mindy is going to be writing a column called How to Be a Girl for Brain Mill Press! Here is her first column, about the Joy Luck Club and representation and feelings.

Quote:

Mallory’s Texts from Carmilla at The Toast. You know, I’m not always interested in yet another “texts from” post, but when they hit, lord how I love them. Also, thanks to the comments, I’ve started watching the webseries! It’s pretty fun!

Next time on TWIR: Year in review. Maybe a special feature just on Genres I Tried To Get Into And How Did I Do With That???

TWIR: A warehouse of delights

I have much less willpower than I think I do.

Cover image for One Thousand and One NightsLast weekend was Harvard Bookstore’s Winter Warehouse sale, which means I went, which means whoops I bought two books. Two is displaying incredible self-restraint. I bought a beautiful book of a new translation of selected tales from One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. The little image over there doesn’t do it justice; it is a hard cover, printed directly on the cover material in gold and a vivid red. I’ve never read any translation of it before, and this seemed like a really appealing start. I also grabbed a hard copy of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman because for some reason I’m fond of that story.

What I did not pick up, but did torment a friend with for a few minutes: 101 Jokes from Outer Space. COME ON. “Why couldn’t the astronaut go to the moon? Because the moon was full!”

This is another thing I won’t talk about much because I plan on talking about it a bit later, perhaps: I finished The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. Please go read it.

Short things

They Are Living Their Own Myths – An interview with N. K. Jemisin at Electric Lit. I include this to note that in future Broken Earth books, we will get more Alabaster and I am a very happy reader to hear that. Although the statement “Stuff happens in book two.” has never been more thrilling or terrifying.

Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World by Caroline M. Yoachim in Lightspeed. A journey through a long, long future, in several incarnations.

“Why are you tugging at the fabric of the universe, Prime?”

“My name is Mei.” Her voice was calm, but her mind was racing. The entity she spoke with was not attached to any physical form, nor could she have said where the words came from.

“You may call me Achron. This must be the first time we meet, for you.”

Let’s talk about horror.

To repeat myself: I’ve been developing my understanding of horror as a genre for a while now, and while I don’t feel like I’m much closer to unlocking the key to horror, I do have Thoughts. Thoughts about what breaks a horror story, and what strengthens it. Please, let’s talk about scary things!

Illustration of a girl in a white dress holding a lamp, surrounded by shadows
From Through the Woods

Verisimilitude is scary. Straight reading of a story like an audiobook often fails for me, maybe because it’s too removed from the content. What has worked, however, is Limetown (which is set up like Serial/This American Life), Dionaea House (website/blog, capturing emails and texts, updated “as it happened” in 2004-2006), House of Leaves (scrapbooked and collected notes, except Johnny Truant. Go away, Johnny Truant.), The Innocence of a Place. There’s a reason so much horror has a framing device, or is as close to first person as a given medium can get. On some level, not being entirely sure it’s fiction is thrilling. Plus it tries to strip away a layer of narrative that separates the reader from the story. Distance throttles fear.

Gore is not scary. It’s gross and uncomfortable, which isn’t the same thing. Being incredibly grossed out by something happening to a character’s eye isn’t scary! But for another definition of horrific it can fit. Especially if it’s executed right — not just a slasher story. I’m thinking more of a particular Emily Carroll story, in which you see something disturbing to do with a characters face. (I don’t want to say more because the turn of it is so great.) But even in that story, there’s more going for it — suspense and not-knowing and an unnamed threat. Body horror is not the same as gore is what I’m winding toward, I think.

Innocuous turned sideways is scary. Small children! A dim hallway! A stranger’s smile! A man in a gray suit! The 66 bus! An itch under your skin! In the right hands all of these are terrifying. The familiar made unfamiliar. Your own reflection in the mirror, but something’s off.

Stupid characters are not scary. I can’t emphasize this enough. This goes for every genre. Don’t let your characters be stupid, writers. Please. You get like one colossally stupid decision for a character, and even then only if the character is established as having a weakness or habit that would lead them to that. You know what? Just to be safe? Don’t. Make your characters smart. It’s so much more terrifying if a smart character can’t avoid or defeat the terrible things.

So: Inevitability, but not predictability, is scary. If I’m rolling my eyes because that’s always the way this story goes, that’s not scary. But if I can’t blink because the characters have done everything right and the terrible thing is still coming? Ooh. Or they’ve done what seemed innocuous, but set them on a road with no exits that leads straight to Horrortown, which they oh-so-slowly realize? Nice.

Incomplete stories are not scary. There’s a difference between leaving things open or unsaid and not finishing the story. Explaining everything kills fear (see a later note) but there has to be some sense of completion. Finish a character arc, give an emotional resolution, do everything but. Everything but showing the monster, everything but naming the demon, everything but explaining the origin. The thing that is scary can be unfinished, inexplicable, unseen, but the story still needs an ending. Cutting off before the resolution is a way of preventing yourself from over-explaining the story, but it can ruin what you’re working toward. Like undercooking brownies.

No, scratch that. Undercooked brownies are delicious. Undercooked chicken. That’s what it’s like. Slightly undercooked, so it’ll be gross and make you ill if you eat it. Don’t undercook your stories.

Related: Lead-up and aftermath are scarier than the thing itself. I.e., shadows, not monsters; imagined threat, not reality. Be wary of showing me the guy in the monster suit. My imagination is more personal, and therefore more scary.

In the end, the biggest thing is that horror, like love, is personal. So no matter what anyone does, there may be some deep-seated part of my personality and my past that makes it fail for me, even as it works for a hundred others.