June 8, 2018

May Reading Recap

I had a wonderful reading month in May, with these three excellent books:

AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz: Jack is a pirate, using her bioengineering expertise to copy patented pharmaceuticals and roaming the Arctic Sea in her stealth submarine. She sells recreational drugs at a lower cost than the corporations to fund the distribution of life-saving medications. When one of her drugs starts producing lethal side effects, Jack fears she's made an error in the reverse engineering, but the problem is in the original, and the company behind it will do anything to cover this up. One of the agents chasing after Jack is Paladin, a military robot on his first assignment. Paladin is programmed with a desire to learn everything he can about the mission and to protect his human partner at all costs. The more he discovers about himself and humans, the more he becomes conscious of interests and desires that go beyond the scope of fulfilling his duties.

I had a great time following these main characters, as well as the secondary ones who gain prominence as the story progresses. I especially enjoyed being inside Paladin's head and experiencing how he processes the world and interacts with humans and other bots. There's a lot of interesting stuff going in the future Newitz has created, both promising technological developments and alarming societal constructs. We meet humans and bots who are indentured to masters, working toward the hope of legal autonomy, and Newitz explores ideas of ownership and freedom as the plot and characters develop. This is a thrilling story, packed with danger, science, passion, and complicated relationships. I've been eagerly recommending it to everyone I talk to.

THAT KIND OF MOTHER by Rumaan Alam: Rebecca gives birth to her first child and is helped through the difficult early days by Priscilla, a lactation consultant at the hospital. Rebecca feels a friendship growing and then hires Priscilla as a nanny, changing the dynamic of their developing relationship. Rebecca is white and Priscilla is black, and their differences in race, class, and life experience, along with Rebecca's many assumptions, further complicate the situation. After a tragedy strikes, the lives of Rebecca's and Priscilla's families become entwined permanently, though often uneasily. Rebecca has worried about falling short at parenting, and she finds herself in a position to prove to herself and the world that she's truly a good mother.

This novel gripped me from the start with its intimate narrative voice. Throughout, I appreciated how carefully Alam depicts the nuances of each interaction between his well-drawn characters. He pokes at all the uncomfortable spots in Rebecca's unexamined privilege, and while she does learn and grow with time, there's no easy transformation. The book covers so much ground that's fascinating to explore, from broad issues like transracial adoption to more specific ones like feeling strongly connected to someone while also not knowing much about them. Alam is a great writer and portrayer of characters, and this novel offers plenty to think about and discuss.

HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL by Alexander Chee is not a literal how-to guide, but in this collection of essays, Chee explores the how of his own evolution toward maturity, as a writer and as a person. He approaches every subject with impressive honesty and careful consideration, whether he's recounting his activism in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, describing the rose garden he cultivated in Brooklyn, or grappling with memories of sexual abuse. Chee is not only a compelling storyteller but a crafter of sharp and vivid sentences, a talent he reveals took him years to hone.

Writing is the main focus of several essays. In "The Writing Life", Chee reflects on the class he took with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan, and the essay encapsulates her lessons on writing. "The Autobiography of My Novel" details the long process of finding the structure and focus of his debut novel, EDINBURGH. More than one piece looks at the financial realities of writing, and Chee explains the periods when he had and didn't have money with the frankness he exhibits throughout the collection. I recommend this book to writers especially, but also to anyone who's been moved by a powerful personal essay.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles advice from 31 authors on whether you should write what you know: "[Ursula K. Le Guin]: I think it's a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it's my duty to testify about them."