What I’m reading: January 2023

We’re only three days into the new year, I KNOW. Please refer to my note in the previous “What I’m reading” post about how I read a lot. Also, lol, I don’t even share everything that I read here. Only the stuff that I don’t dislike, and the stuff that I actively love. Anyway, I won’t always be able to keep this pace of reading, so I’m enjoying it—and I’m enjoying sharing the books that I enjoy—while I have the time.

How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler.

Magic. Absolute magic. I don’t know who else to describe it.

I saw a tweet about this book a couple weeks ago, read the first essay on Goodreads, ordered the book immediately, started it on a Saturday night, and finished it the following morning. I took a break only to sleep, and to get a manicure that had been scheduled weeks in advance. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to stop, because the writing is so (SO) good. At the same time, I tried to not read it too quickly, because I didn’t want to finish it, because I didn’t want it to end. The only other book that’s had that type of impact on me, and to that degree, is Maria Popova’s 500-page masterpiece Figuring, which I devoured the moment it was published in 2019 and haven’t read again since because I’m afraid that the magic of the first time can’t be replicated, and that reading it again will in fact lessen, or even ruin, the magic I remember it being.

(I have long loved Maria’s blog The Marginalian, formerly Brain Pickings, although her understanding of autism seems to be deeply misinformed and inaccurate, and she perpetuates harmful stereotypes of autism and autistic people by incorrectly calling autism a mental health condition, and employing euphemistic and insulting “differently abled” language in lieu of the accurate, precise, and overwhelmingly preferred term: disabled.)

Anyway.

How Far the Light Reaches is a memoir of queerness and family and identity and connection and belonging in ten essays. Each essay braids together the author’s personal experiences with a specific sea creature and the life it leads. The result is brilliant, fascinating, immersive, magical. Really, I don’t know how else to describe it.

Also: That cover???? Come on.

Honestly, the only way this book could have been better is if it were a visual and/or aural experience, narrated by David Attenborough and the author, with colorful illustrations of the sea creatures and stories detailed in each essay.

Patriarchy Blues: Reflections on Manhood by Frederick Jospeh.

Another book I learned about on Twitter. That’s how I learn about a lot of what I read, honestly. Someone on Twitter asked about this one, and one of the authors of White Women (which I wrote about in last month’s post) replied that she loved it. White Women is an excellent book. I trust the taste of the women who wrote it, so when I saw one of the authors praise this book, I ordered it immediately.

It’s good! Through a collection of essays, letters, and poems, the author writes about his experience with the patriarchy, which, as a Black man, is inextricably intertwined with another oppressive system: white supremacy. I think he does a really good job explaining the similarities that oppressive systems (white supremacy, capitalism, the patriarchy, ableism, etc.) share and how they reinforce each other. I also appreciate his discussions on both Christianity and social media, and how both contribute to the aims of oppressive systems—and how “Christianity reigns supreme as a pillar of capitalistic, patriarchal, and white supremacist oppression.” I also really liked his takes on white feminism, which echoed what Regina Jackson and Saira Rao say about white feminism in White Women; gender; and the never-ending pressure of the never-ending process of becoming—how the best/ideal you is always just out of reach.

The downside to this book: There were several sections that I had to skip over. I didn’t read most of the epigraphs, which preceded each essay, letter, and poem, because they were printed in a “playful” font (that I think was meant to mimic handwriting (maybe?)) that was really difficult for my eyes to focus on, and made my head actually hurt. Ditto for the large sections printed entirely in italics. People in charge of book design: Please remember that typeface choices are part of accessible design!!!

Book cover of "The Best American Essays 2022" edited by Alexander Chee.

The Best American Essays 2022 edited by Alexander Chee.

Look. Listen. I know that I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of anthologies. I’m not. This one though? SO GOOD. But I mean. It’s edited by Alexander Chee, so are we surprised? (No. We are not.) (Some of Chee’s own essays are here.) Seriously, the writing is so good—evocative and relatable, even (especially?) when difficult, uncomfortable, sad.

Some of the essays that stuck with me the most: Vauhini Vara’s “Ghosts,” in which she uses an AI chatbot to help her write about her sister’s death; Gary Shteyngart’s “My Gentile Region,” about his botched circumcision (at age 7) and its aftermath (in the present day, which for him is middle age); and Anthony Veasna So’s “Baby Yeah,” about creativity/creating, friendship, and navigating grief after suicide.

So you see??? The writing??? So good!!!

This book is also a tactile delight. The cover has a very slight/fine texture to it that makes it easy to grip, the paper feels slightly softer than usual, and the book is the perfect kind of bendy. It just feels good in your hands.

My only complaints: The font is a teensy bit too small for my taste and sometimes made the page feel dense and visually overwhelming, and—this one is very much just my preference, and very superficial—I hate when new chapters or essays start on the left-side page. New chapters or essays should always start on the right-side page!!!

Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency: Poems by Chen Chen.

I am not a poetry person. Mostly because I don’t think I’m smart enough to understand it. I’m not good with metaphor, so a lot of poetry goes right over my head. I also struggle with the formatting/spacing of poems. I don’t know how to read it in my head, and when there’s a lot of space between words or phrases, or a lot of line breaks with words indented all over the place, it’s hard for my eyes to follow and sometimes makes my brain hurt (sorry!) and I end up reading it in a halted cadence and usually have to re-read every line a thousand times and even then I’m not totally sure that I’ve understood what I’ve read. But I love language, and I’m endlessly fascinated by how we use it, so I keep trying.

All that being said, I enjoyed this collection of poems! I didn’t understand all of them, but I did like them. The themes that stood out to me the most: grief, loss, and (non)belonging, specifically through the lens of a queer Chinese-American man living through our current era of white supremacy, all sorts of -isms and -phobias, gun violence, and the pandemic. Sometimes very gut-wrenching, sometimes literally laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes both in the same piece. Also, can we please talk about how great that title is? A little existential crisis-y, no? Which is to say: It’s perfect and superb and I wish I’d thought of it.

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