December 13, 2018

October/November Reading Recap

Time to catch up on reviews again! In the past two months, I read quite a variety of books:

HOME FIRE by Kamila Shamsie: Isma put her education on hold to finish raising her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, after they were all orphaned. Now she's heading to a PhD program in the United States, leaving Aneeka behind in London. Parvaiz should be home with his twin, but instead he's gone away to do something so terrible that his sisters won't talk about it. In Massachusetts, Isma encounters another Brit, the son of a politician who has a fraught history with Isma's family. This MP distances himself at every opportunity from his Pakistani-Muslim heritage, to the disappointment of those who share his background like Isma, Aneeka, and Parvaiz. The fates of the two families soon become entwined by the consequences of Parvaiz's actions.

Shamsie develops this gripping story one layer at a time by giving each character a turn to claim the point of view and reveal or learn more about what's happening. I admired how well the perspective shifts work to show the unexpected sides of the characters and to build the tension and suspense that's constant throughout the novel. I found HOME FIRE even more intriguing knowing that Shamsie modeled it on the ancient tragedy of Antigone, which I reviewed before reading so I could spot the parallels. This is a powerful book that I recommend to readers interested in complicated situations and tolerant of gruesome material.

→ In ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: THE CASE FOR REASON, SCIENCE, HUMANISM, AND PROGRESS, Steven Pinker presents the data that shows life around the world is getting better in nearly every way. One by one, he considers aspects of the human condition -- health, inequality, civil rights, and so on -- and uses graphs and facts gleaned from scientific studies to chart the progress made in that area over the centuries and decades. Pinker demonstrates why this is the best time in history to be alive and why that's pretty much true no matter who or where you are. Even commonly perceived problems of the current era are mostly misjudged, overhyped, historically unlikely to persist, or within our power to fix.

I enjoyed this book overall, though I would have preferred a shorter version of it. The bulk of the text is the middle section analyzing the progress in each aspect of life, and I found most of that interesting and educational. The sections at the beginning and end are more abstract and philosophical, and I had trouble staying engaged at times. Pinker's use of the Enlightenment to frame this story of progress never really came into focus for me, so I may not have gotten everything I was supposed to from this book. I also wasn't quite his imagined reader because I came into the book already aware that we're lucky to live now, so some of his arguments aimed at pessimists missed the mark for me. However you're feeling about the state of the world, if you'd like concrete evidence that it's improving, I recommend this book, and I won't tell if you decide to skim some sections.

→ The stories collected in THE REFUGEES by Viet Thanh Nguyen feature vivid, complicated characters in difficult situations. Nguyen's superb writing makes every sentence and scene engaging. However, I was often underwhelmed at the ends of stories that felt like they stopped too soon or without enough conclusion.

A few favorites stood out and stayed with me: The sad, powerful "Black-Eyed Women" is narrated by a ghostwriter who encounters the ghost of her brother and has to remember the terrible circumstances of his death. "Someone Else Besides You" spends a few days with a divorced man and his challenging father, winding up with one of the more satisfying endings. I really enjoyed the hapless protagonist and unexpected turns in "The Transplant", the story most reminiscent of the darkly playful tone of Nguyen's excellent novel, THE SYMPATHIZER.

TRANSCRIPTION by Kate Atkinson: In 1940, Juliet is recruited into MI5, first assigned to clerical duties, but soon given the additional task of working as an undercover agent. The operations Juliet is involved in have the goal of surveilling the Nazi sympathizers among the British citizenry, which entails MI5 agents posing as traitors themselves. In 1950, with the war consigned to the past, Juliet works at the BBC, producing programs for schoolchildren. An odd encounter with a former colleague brings the past back into play and sends Juliet on a hunt for the rest of her wartime connections.

This is a twisty novel. There are nested timelines, hinted-at dark secrets, and an intricate web of characters and allegiances, all of which seem to be leading to an ingenious payoff. But I'm sorry to say that the final reveal provoked not a satisfying "oh, of course!" but rather a disappointed "huh, really?" My reaction to the ending leaves me uncertain about whether to recommend this book, because each earlier piece of the story delighted me. The characters are a charmingly quirky bunch, with great interpersonal dynamics. The historical details are fascinating, especially the nuts and bolts of Juliet's work, both in espionage and in radio. Atkinson's prose delivers all the deadpan humor and wry observation I expected after reading her two excellent previous novels. Watching the pieces of the plot come together thrilled me -- up to the point where it didn't. So while there's much to get out of reading TRANSCRIPTION, I can't fully endorse it.

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers: Rosemary leaves her planet-bound life on Mars for a position on the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that constructs wormholes to connect the vast reaches of space. Her new colleagues are a tightly-knit crew (mostly), some human, some other sapients. Everyone on the ship has a secret or a desire that becomes more pressing when the Wayfarer embarks on a long-haul journey to undertake their most lucrative -- and possibly most dangerous -- job yet.

Lots of people I know love this book, but alas, I wasn't charmed. I did grow fond of the characters and the dynamics of their found family. I was interested in many aspects of Chambers' universe. But the story's pacing and the episodic nature of the plot frustrated me throughout. Long sections of banter and antics didn't amuse me like they were supposed to, and forward momentum was frequently halted for exposition delivery. Whenever the crew ran into some trouble, the conflict and tension was quickly resolved (except for the final disaster), usually with little impact on further events. If you're excited about fun characters getting in and out of peril across the galaxy, but not too concerned with the rest, this book might be more for you than it was for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Perhaps you remember the library located on the U.S.-Canada Border. It's now being used as a meeting place for Iranian families separated by the travel ban: "The Iranian families have undertaken fraught, costly journeys for the chance of a few hours together on the library's grounds. Although several Iranians said they hadn't faced any obstacles from immigration authorities, others said U.S. border officers have at times detained them for several hours, tried to bar them from entering the library, told them they shouldn't be visiting each other there or said they should limit their visits to just a few minutes. American and Canadian officials have threatened to shut the library over the visits, one library staff member said."

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