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May in Review — Lit Chat, Vol. 9
All the links in this newsletter go to my Bookshop storefront, where your purchase supports independent bookstores (and me! I get a little cut). Click below to check it out!
A few housekeeping notes/life updates before we get to the books:
Lit Chat is going on summer break! I’m moving at the end of the month (hmu if you want my couch), and then I am promptly getting on a plane and absconding to Europe for three weeks, so I don’t anticipate having much time for reading/writing in the foreseeable future. I’ll be back in August!
On that note, I have far too many books in my apartment and books are unfortunately very heavy to pack, so I’m looking to offload some! I’m thinking of doing a little book swap in Fort Greene Park on either the third or fourth weekend in June, so if you’re interested, text/email/message me and I’ll make sure to send you the deets when I have them.
My friend Michy was kind enough to include one of my poems in her newsletter, beat & beatnik, last week! Michy is a talented poet and newsletterist, and her most recent letter is a thoughtful and emotionally resonant reflection on change, intimacy, and community. You can read the whole thing here (my poem’s at the end):
ICYMI on my Instagram, I saw Boris Johnson in Kramer’s bookstore in Washington, D.C. over Memorial Day weekend:
Okay! Onto the books, shall we? Most of this month’s reading was done from planes, trains, and hotel beds, and I feel like I’ve lived approximately four lifetimes since I read my first book of the month. The years start coming and they really don’t stop coming, huh?
This debut poetry collection is not for the squeamish among us. Inspired by the poet’s experiences as a medical student and trauma surgery researcher, these poems examine the physicality of life with raw, bloody vulnerability. I especially enjoyed the ones that were patient-centered, such as “Eavesdropping on the Dead” and “The Lies.” In a healthcare system that often makes patients feel less like people and more like cases to be gotten through, the poet’s honoring of their stories is a necessary reminder of the importance of empathy in medicine. Sorini does not shy away from the discomfort of pain, death, or grief, and so neither does her reader; together, we bear witness to the many lives that mattered enough to fill these pages. I had the pleasure of being Maya’s former classmate at Wash U and look forward to following her career both in poetry and medicine. A big thanks to Maya and Press 53 for sending me a copy to read!
I listened to this poetry collection on a 5 AM Amtrak, in a state of semi-consciousness where I’d occasionally slip into half-dreams inspired by details from a poem and then ultimately have to rewind after being rudely jolted back into reality. What’s unique about this collection is not only that some of the poems are recordings of live performances, which feels intimate and communal all at once, but also that it’s fully translated into Spanish in the second half. This is both convenient for Spanish-speaking readers and thematically relevant, as translation, migration, and their implications for one’s identity are some of the most prevalent themes in this collection, as is a profound love for the family, friends, and culture that populate Olivarez’s life and work. I’ve got a note to self to circle back to this one when I’m fully awake enough to appreciate it.
Look, I don’t care if it won the Pulitzer, this book was too long! I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, and I’m glad to finally be able to say I’ve read it, but it did not need to be this long. This meandering tome follows the tumultuous adolescence and eventual adulthood of Theo Decker, whose life is shaped by a tragic accident that kills his mother and brings a priceless work of art into his possession as a young boy. The many misfortunes heaped upon Theo as he tries to protect his painting were slightly reminiscent of A Little Life (though nowhere near as extreme) in that they came to feel gratuitous, but Donna Tartt has a way of making it difficult to escape her worlds even when they are objectively stressful. I kept thinking about this book long after I put it down, but I think I agree with most of the literary populace when I say I liked The Secret History better.
I was introduced to Alexander Chee by way of his memoir, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (highly recommend to both writers and readers!), and Edinburgh is that autobiographical novel. I had luckily forgotten enough of the plot details from that chapter of the memoir to still be sufficiently surprised by the novel’s dramatic turns, but I remembered enough to know just how many of the protagonist Fee’s formative experiences overlapped with the author’s, such as being queer, half-Korean, and a victim of child sexual abuse. Though the novel is inspired by and largely revolves around this trauma, Chee’s gift as a writer is his ability to elevate the base tragedy of its plot, re-aligning it with elements from Japanese myth and Greek drama until its scope has been transformed from a deeply personal novel into something artful and transcendent. It’s a heavy novel, but not necessarily dark; if anything, it blazes with the love and compassion both Fee and Chee clearly share for all of the lives held within.
This was my book club book this month and it was a pretty perfect one, in my opinion! It’s the story of a man who marries into a tight-knit family of four sisters in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, and about the ways their lives ultimately deviate and find their way back to each other when faced with the unexpected, cataclysmic forces of death and new love. I fell for this book initially for the Chicago references and the Little Women vibes, but its true strength is in how it portrays so many different kinds of love as being equally expansive, be it romantic, platonic, or sisterly. It’s about the kind of love that holds someone close to your heart even across years and miles, about learning to accept that love for yourself but also to accept that different people need and want to be loved in different ways. If you’re looking for a book to share with your mom/sisters/aunts/grandmothers, or even just with the friends you love as family, I can’t recommend this one enough.
THE TIPPY TOP:
It may strike you as odd that I’m choosing a Rick Riordan book as my top for the month above a literal Pulitzer Prize winner, but this is my newsletter and I get to make the rules!!! As a ranking system, this newsletter is so deeply arbitrary and tends to reflect the vibes of my general reading experience more so than the objective quality of the book, and The Hidden Oracle was the book I had the best time with this month, hands-down. Whether I was half-asleep on an early flight or hauling my laundry up and down Dekalb Avenue, Apollo’s narration in my ear was a saving grace for me in May.
The second spin-off series from the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians (real ones know I’ve been making my way through all of Riordan’s books on audio since last summer), The Trials of Apollo follows Apollo’s demotion to an unathletic, acne-ridden mortal teenager after angering his father, Zeus. After his allegiance is claimed by a slightly feral demigod named Meg McCaffrey on the streets of Manhattan, the two make their way to Camp Half-Blood, where they are tasked with finding and regaining control of one of the titular hidden oracles of Ancient Greece: the Oracle of Dodona.
The voice actor narrating this book was absolutely perfect for the self-absorbed fallen god, and the writing is funny as hell. I loved the way Apollo’s narration turned classic stories from mythology into gossip from his own personal autobiography, summarizing ancient dramas with conspiratorial asides like, “Juicy story, ask me later.” Yet the real heart of this story is in the way Apollo’s mortality teaches him to appreciate the value of not just his own human life, but the lives of all those he encounters throughout his trials, and how they are made all the more precious in the absence of immortality. This is a hallmark of Riordan’s writing: making myth and legend accessible, fun, and vividly, authentically mortal. I’m saving the rest of this series as a treat for my future self when I need it most (probably next week).
That’s me signing off for now! Next time you hear from me I’ll be tan, fluent in French, and breathing clean air in front of the open windows in my gorgeous new rent-stabilized apartment (a girl can manifest).
Until then, happy reading!