September 11, 2017

August Reading Recap

These days I'm not reading as many books as before, but I'm pleased about continuing to experience an excellent variety of stories:

THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin: The Stillness is a land that's never still, where communities are designed around the earth's constant trembling and the threat of a shake large enough to bring disaster. The disaster that's just occurred is cataclysmic. One survivor, Essun, is simultaneously suffering a personal disaster, the murder of her young son by his own father. The boy was killed for displaying his power, the ability to move and calm the earth, which he inherited from Essun. She's kept her identity as an orogene secret for years, because orogenes are hated and feared, despite the protection they can provide. The best an orogene can hope for is to be taken in by the Fulcrum, trained to channel their power, and forced into a life of service, keeping the Stillness a little bit stiller.

Jemisin has created a fascinating world, based on extensive research into geology and an imagined history that stretches back millennia. Like any skilled writer, she presents only as much of this background as is needed and interesting, and exposition about how the Stillness, the orogenes, and the Fulcrum operate doesn't get in the way of the story's tension. The characters are as thoroughly developed as the world, by turns endearing, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

This book grows more and more intriguing and clever as it goes along and presents new revelations and mysteries. The secrets are only beginning to unfold by the end, so this first installation of the Broken Earth trilogy doesn't form a complete story on its own. Happily, the whole trilogy is available as of last month, and also happily, I will be glad to spend two more books with Essun and the others, exploring the Stillness.

CHEMISTRY by Weike Wang follows the thoughts of a woman under pressure. She's a PhD student who worries she'll never match the accomplishments of her lab mates. She's the child of immigrants who fears she'll never live up to her parents' expectations. And she's overwhelmed by the marriage proposal from her boyfriend, who has completed his PhD, grew up with parents who praised him constantly, and doesn't understand what she has to be afraid of.

This short novel is composed of brief passages that detail a moment, a memory, an emotion, a scientific fact, or any blend of these. The first-person narrative is written with both humor and insight. Imagining her future, the narrator says, "I don't see myself having kids... If I had one, I would want to have two, and if I had two, I would want to have zero." Of her father, she muses, "Such progress he's made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon."

The combined pieces tell a story about a difficult period in the protagonist's life, but it's a relatively -- and realistically -- uneventful story, concerned far more with character than plot. While I prefer a more even balance between these in my reading, I found CHEMISTRY a well-crafted, appealing version of this type of book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Anna Solomon considers sexy backs, headless women, and evolving book cover trends: "Maybe the point isn't banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it's not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized--though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women's backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men's books in egregious disproportion to those by women... but by women ourselves."