It’s the tenth month of March 2020. It’s Fuckuary, as Roxane Gay called it. We’re avoiding the plague, we’ve lived through insurrection and inauguration and now we get to painfully wait for things to change in a less symbolic way. We’re still trapped at home, so there’s plenty of time to read.
And hey, if you’re finding yourself in a spot where it is hard to read and concentrate, I know how that is, doll. I think almost everyone has gone through something like that during this long, strange smear of time. If you haven’t read a book in a while, you might have more luck with short stories. Only one thing is going to happen, and you’re going to know it all in twenty minutes, maybe less.
There’s also the soothing and hands-freeing possibility that someone could read it to you. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done over the last year via audiobook or podcast, so that I can hear a story while I take my shitty little walks or do the dishes. It feels indulgent, but also like I’m stacking tasks and getting shit done. Reading certainly counts as getting shit done.
Here’s the best stuff I read in January, as a suggested to-do list.
First, short fiction:
Sam J. Miller’s story “Let All the Children Boogie,” reminded me of that brief and fleeting magic or hoping to catch a song on the radio— remember those days when you couldn’t google a snatch of lyrics to track down the song that the DJ didn’t name? Remember thinking that a single scrap of a song helped explain you to yourself and going on a quest to the record store? This is a wonderful, fanciful story about a queerness that can’t hide and a connection that cannot be lost.
“The Love Song of M. Religiosa,” by Nibedita Sen is that rare hilarious sex romp about cannibal insects. I love the format of it, the question-seeking-answer frame that lets us hear how things should go through some very different voices. And I love any story where the spider speaks and people listen.
I love stories about the body, both as horror and homecoming. “Scallop,” by J.L. Akagi manages to be both, to wring both salt and sweetness from our worst fears. I gently love this awe-filled story, I fold it into my carapace and digest it with my warm slimes.
“Jason the Heat Guy,” by Lulu Miller gave me a chill in the literal and figurative sense. If you’ve ever worried that you will not be served because of who you are, this one will hurt you.
The best essay of the pandemic might be “I Recommend Eating Chips,” by Sam Anderson in the Times. The nervous pull toward munching, the rapturous visitation of “a whole bag of Cool Ranch Doritos here: electric blue, plump as a winter seed, bursting with imminent joy.” It is perfect.
Rachel Syme runs a wonderful perfume newsletter called The Dry Down, for anyone who can’t get enough of the histrionics of Fragrantica, like me. Her piece in the New Yorker, “How to Make Sense of Scents,” digs at the problem of how hard it is to explain what you want to smell like. How to find a scent that makes you smell like ‘dark academia’ or ‘Bridgerton regrets and spilled tea.’ She’s the kind of writer who can do that, and I love her for it.
I read John Hornor Jacobs’ “A Lush and Seething Hell,” which is two novellas bound together. The first one was so good— a quest for a magical text, a country that doesn’t exist anymore— that I was afraid to read the second and dull my enjoyment. The second— a search for lost verses of a dark song, a WPA-funded trip to the underworld— was better. Both are incredible, both show how powerful and meaningful horror can be.
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club,” by Malinda Lo is one of those lost stories of what lesbians were like and what they did before it was safe to come out, but it’s more than that. It also weaves in how difficult it is to be the only one like you. Lo’s main character is a Chinese lesbian in San Francisco in the 1950s. Even when she finds queer community, racism follows her there. Even when she finds courage to say who she is, she is constrained by family expectations and notions of propriety. This book excited me and wrung my heart like only first love can. It is a must-read for any wlw.