Sometimes We Read Instead of Write

Mini Book Reviewlets, y’all:

Mermaids in Paradise and George Bush, the Dark Horse of Love. Lydia Millet.

I will unapologetically compare these books to Mark Twain. The fully formed narrators who parlay sparkling ironic narration. The satire of US culture. The laughing to keep from crying. Why doesn’t Lydia Millet get more magazine covers? All the magazine covers!

All of them.

Most reviews of her latest, about the mermaids, (were written by men and most) damned with the faintest of praise. As if reviewers had internalized without self-awareness the general cultural vibe about women, about funny women, about women writers, about funny novels, about women-written funny novels. As if the dudes didn’t know what satire is.

Mediocre reviews notwithstanding, my recent Millet-mersion has brought me joy. But it’s also continued my consideration of how a thinking person deals with the Anthropocene and its accompanying extinctions. Millet’s response seems to be, pretty much, to stop thinking. To dissolve the attributes that make us human.

The dissolution of the human personality at the end of a few of her books, including this one, seems like the only ethical representation of earth’s current crisis.

Anthropocene getting you down? Take the anthro- out! Then you get back a bustling, vibrant –cene, an epoch without a human presence. Bring geologic time back to its properly non-human norm.

But also, what moral action can a human make, when faced with the enormity of what we’ve lost/destroyed and keep losing/destroying? A certain dissolution of selfhood seems like an inevitable moral response. Even when the novel’s funny. An acceptance that individual human action cannot stop the progression of extinctions, but that some loss of the human can partially reset the balance.

So many of her novels end in quiet acquiescence and retreat. Even the ones with powerful, comic narrative voices. At the end of Mermaids in Paradise, the narrative voice retreats in fragments while the narrator is asserting that she will try to keep her personality intact.

What moral power of the novel remains, if humans acquiesce and retreat from the damage we can’t seem to stop doing?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Ann Fadiman. (Thanks, Mom!)

Now a pretty standard medical school text, the book makes a really good case for why it should be a pretty standard medical school text.

In the 80s in California, a young Hmong girl had a rare and terrifying form of epilepsy. Her doctors and her family had pretty much opposite ideas about everything.

Highly engaging medical ethnography of the first wave of Hmong refugees in the Central Valley of the Golden State. Suspenseful, even after I already did the googling and read the obituary of the girl. Outfitted with a 15-years-later update addressing the successes of the first generation Hmong children, transformations in cultural competence in medicine, and the ways Fadiman’s reporting this book changed her own life.

White is For Witching. Helen Oyeyemi.

Did you, also, read Angela Carter’s entire cannon before reaching your full adult stature? Did you wish sometimes, though it hurt you to admit any tinch of weakness in her writing, that Carter would perhaps tone down the bawd and bring race critique to the forefront of her Marxism?

Oyeyemi is the goth, moody companion to your Carter-inspired studies of the former British empire that you’ve always dreamt of.

This 2009 novel is not perfect. But I enjoyed it! As I might enjoy just about any feminist magical realist anti-colonial broody story of fraternal twins orphaned and destroyed by England.

White is for witching, a color to be worn so that all other colors can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do.

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