February 5, 2019

January Reading Recap

I started the year off right, spending January reading a bunch of great books!

THE DREAMERS by Karen Thompson Walker is the suspenseful, beautifully written story of a town gripped by an epidemic, and I was relieved to find it handles the dreaming aspect of the story with a light and original touch.

In a dorm in the isolated college town of Santa Lora, California, a student falls into a sleep she can't be woken from. The mysterious affliction spreads to others in the dorm, and the doctors can't find any cause for the perpetual sleep. By the time the scale of the contagion is understood, many more cases have appeared throughout the town. Santa Lora is quarantined, and those still awake fear that sleep may descend at any time.

Walker recounts the Santa Lora epidemic with a well-crafted omniscient narration that spends time in the heads of about half a dozen major characters watching the disease unfold from different perspectives. The style works great for the story, and every character is a richly drawn person who I was pleased to see again and nervous about following further. The novel's disease has a fantastical nature, but Walker portrays it with the same detail and tension as found in real-life epidemics. Just as realistic are all the moments between characters that reveal their connections or distance. Pretty much everything about this book thrilled me, and I highly recommend it.

THE FATED SKY by Mary Robinette Kowal: A few years have passed since the events of THE CALCULATING STARS (my review), and the international effort to get humanity into space has established a small lunar colony. Elma works on the moon as a pilot for three-month stretches, and while she loves being an astronaut, she hates being away from her husband. When Elma is reassigned to join the first crew heading to Mars, it's a thrilling but terrifying prospect that she'll be away from Earth and Nathaniel for three years. Before the mission even launches, the crew has to contend with conflicts among themselves and pressures from a society grappling with both the civil rights movement and the effects of the meteor strike. The journey to Mars only introduces more, and more perilous, obstacles.

This book is an exciting, emotional ride. Kowal really puts her characters through the wringer, and while I wished these people I'd really grown to like weren't facing such harrowing situations, it made for a great story. As in THE CALCULATING STARS, there's lots of cool science and thoughtful character interactions. Both books would have benefited from some tightening to remove repetition, especially in the service of trusting readers to understand already established dynamics. I still definitely recommend them. I suggest reading the pair in quick succession as I did, because THE FATED SKY doesn't include much in the way of reminders about who anyone is or what's happening. Future installments, not yet published, are likely to catch readers up more. I look forward to Elma's further adventures.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh is the odd, absorbing story of a woman who's decided to sleep away her life for a year. Our narrator's problems, such as they are, involve lingering feelings for a jerk she dated and a scorn for the world that keeps her detached from everything and everyone. She believes a year of sleep will fix all that, and she has the financial means to stay in her Manhattan apartment and do nothing else, so she embarks on her project with a barrage of drugs prescribed by an absurdly terrible psychiatrist. Every day or so, she wakes for a few hours to eat a bit, watch movies, and endure visits from her one friend, who's just as discontented with life. Some months in, she starts doing things while drugged that she doesn't remember when she wakes up -- making purchases and appointments, chatting online with strangers -- and she struggles with how to keep the world at bay when her subconscious is so determined not to.

I was fascinated by the strange premise of this novel and delighted by how well Moshfegh pulls it off. From the opening pages, I felt sucked into the narrator's project by the strong voice and details both mundane and lurid. The experience was unpleasantly compelling. The dark humor of the story appealed to me, and some of the sessions with the psychiatrist made me laugh out loud. Not everyone is going to be drawn to this story, but if you're intrigued, I recommend reading it. Many critics considered it one of the best books of 2018.

AYITI by Roxane Gay is a collection of short fiction that was Gay's earliest book, recently republished and expanded. Many of the pieces are quite brief, more a depiction of a moment or idea than a story. Every piece sings with Gay's strong, vivid writing, but I preferred the longer, fuller stories that allow time to sink into the characters' lives.

The standout story in the collection for me is the longest one, "Sweet on the Tongue". I had time to become fully invested in the protagonist before the painful uncovering of her past, which turns out to be a kidnapping like that in Gay's powerful novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I also especially enjoyed the sexy "A Cool, Dry Place", about a young couple making plans to leave Haiti and making plenty of love. In general, I'd recommend the later collection DIFFICULT WOMEN over AYITI, but this small book is certainly worth reading as well.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Millions, Jessica McCann shares experiences with novel research: "For my recent historical novel set in 1930s Kansas, I read no fewer than 25 nonfiction books and countless articles about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, farming, geology, auto mechanics, ecology, land surveying, food canning, quilting, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and so much more. I compiled many binders full of notes. And then I abandoned a lot of it."