July 7, 2017

June Reading Recap

I spent much of June simultaneously reading these three wildly different books:

HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay is an intensely honest and powerful account of moving through the world as a very fat woman. The book mixes smart musings on weight, food, and other bodily topics with concise sections of chronological memoir. Gay writes about what was done to her body -- she was gang-raped at the age of 12 -- and what she did to her body in response -- she made herself as large as possible to avoid becoming a victim again. With frank insight, she examines the complex repercussions of these points in her life and all that followed.

The writing is uncomfortably raw at times, but that's not to say it's unpolished. As in all her books, Gay demonstrates great skill at both sentence and structural level. Short chapters and recurring refrains give the reader some sense of the effort and bravery required to write this memoir, as the text sometimes circles around and works its way up to revealing the most humiliating parts. It's an effective and beautiful technique.

Right after reading the book, I was lucky enough to get to attend one of Gay's tour events at Kepler's Books, where she had a deep and wide-ranging discussion with interviewer Angie Coiro. I recommend seeking out any recordings of Gay's previous interviews to hear her talk about her work, such as recent appearances on Fresh Air and Another Round.

→ In STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND by Samuel R. Delany, there are over 6,000 planets populated by humans and aliens. The story provides readers a sense of the vastness and variety of this inhabited universe, while focusing primarily on two humans originating from two quite different worlds. One of the main characters spends decades in an extremely limited existence, enslaved on a planet where there's little knowledge of other worlds. The second comes from a culture shaped by the close cohabitation of humans and the native species, and works as a diplomat engaged in frequent interstellar travel.

I'm keeping this explanation simple because the book's many complexities are best discovered through reading. The impressive, intricate worldbuilding is presented the way I love, with concepts referred to but not usually explained right away, if at all, so the reader has a chance to reflect, guess at what's going on, or just roll with it. The scope of Delany's setting is enormous, and characters frequently mention that even a single planet is "a big place" with many cultures, languages, climates, and so on. Most of the story, however, takes place at an intimate scale, revolving around personal concerns such as desire, family, gender, etiquette, and food. For me, it's the perfect combination for a science fiction novel.

Delany planned this story as the first half of a diptych, but his creative focus changed, and he never finished the second novel. As a result, this book ends with much unresolved, but with that caveat given, I highly recommend it to anyone excited about what I've described. It's brilliantly conceived and superbly written, and I'm eager to read more of Delany's work.

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari looks at the shifts in human development and culture from prehistoric times, when homo sapiens was "an animal of no significance", to the present day. Harari analyzes the major leaps forward in human history -- the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions -- and explains the contribution of factors such as the rise of monotheism and the idea that the future will be better than the past. He draws connections between different changes and at several points considers whether history might have gone another way.

I learned a lot from this book. I knew a small amount about some of these topics and found out many more fascinating facts, and I discovered whole aspects of history I'd barely thought about. The writing engaged me most of the time, though there were some dry passages and some points where I disagreed with Harari's arguments. This is an informative and mostly easy-to-read survey of the significant stages in human progress, and definitely a good way to learn about the subject.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura explores maps that reveal the hidden structures of Choose Your Own Adventure Books: "In just about every case, it can be surprising how a simple choice leads you down a complex path. In By Balloon to the Sahara, you're in a balloon and are presented with a choice on the very first page. Storm clouds are on the horizon. Choice 1: 'If you act now, you can release gas from the balloon and land before the storm overtakes you.' Choice 2: 'Perhaps the storm will pass quickly. Maybe you can ride it out.' That’s just the beginning, since this book has the most decision points -- 48 -- of the series."