April 4, 2019

March Reading Recap

I had an outstanding reading month in March, and I fully endorse these three excellent books!

→ Mira Jacob starts GOOD TALK: A MEMOIR IN CONVERSATIONS with her biracial son's questions about race, prompted by his love of Michael Jackson's music. At six years old, he understands that he's brown, like his mom, and that his dad is white, and that all of this matters somehow, but there's a lot he's still wondering. Throughout this beautiful graphic memoir, Mira tries to answer her son's questions while reflecting on the questions of her own upbringing with Indian immigrant parents. She doesn't always have explanations, though, especially as Donald Trump's presidential campaign gains power and her husband's parents continue to support him.

Each conversation and event portrayed in GOOD TALK is packed with emotion, humor, and difficult truths. The artwork is a joy to gaze at, consisting of drawn characters and speech bubbles on top of photographs that set the scene. (You can view a long excerpt on the publisher's page -- click "Look Inside".) The book jumps back and forth effectively between two timelines: The story's backbone is the years 2014 to 2016, a time of many questions about Trump and racial relations. Alternating with these conversations and often commenting on them, Mira's life unfolds chronologically, beginning with confusing incidents from her own childhood and showing important events in her growing up, relationships, career, and family. All the parts of this book are incredible, and I recommend it to everyone.

THE RAVEN TOWER by Ann Leckie: The people of Iraden have an agreement with the Raven god: The god will protect the territory and citizens from attack by outsiders, and the Raven's Lease will serve as human ruler and care for the bird currently inhabited by the god. Whenever the bird reaches the end of his lifespan, so will the Lease, who must sacrifice himself to replenish the strength of the god. Mawat is heir to the Lease, and he returns from war expecting the imminent deaths of the Raven and his father, ready to serve as the new ruler of Iraden. Instead, Mawat discovers that his uncle has usurped his place, claiming his father fled without making the necessary sacrifice. Mawat is overcome with disbelief and anger, and it's up to his clever aide Eolo to investigate what's true and what's a twisty political conspiracy.

The full scope of the agreements in this book is far more intricate and fascinating than presented in this summary, involving numerous gods and the groups of people who worship them. Leckie has built the world of her first fantasy novel as skillfully and inventively as in her wonderful science fiction. The story and its unusual narration gripped me right away, and I remained engrossed as more was gradually revealed. The characters, both humans and gods, are fully conceived, flawed, and fun to spend time with. As always, Leckie excels at showing the complicated details of the dynamics between individuals and groups. If this sounds like your sort of novel, I strongly recommend it.

SISTER NOON by Karen Joy Fowler: In 1890 San Francisco, Lizzie is a member of the wealthy class, though her choice to remain a spinster makes her vaguely suspect in fashionable society. Through her volunteer work at a home for women and children in need, Lizzie crosses paths with the mysterious Mary Ellen Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant asks the home to take in a small girl whose origins are also shrouded in rumor, and Lizzie grows curious about both of them. As Lizzie investigates, she keeps running up against strange events, disturbing questions, and the tiresome forces of so-called polite society.

Several characters in this novel are real figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, who gained prominence in early San Francisco while passing a white woman but later revealed herself to be black. Fowler embraces the wild, contradictory histories of Pleasant and the others, telling different versions throughout the novel in entertaining detail. Lizzie and the rest of the fictional characters are just as richly, delightfully drawn, with Fowler's wry humor frequently on display. There's a mystery at the heart of this novel, and some exciting antics drive the plot forward, but much of the story focuses on the nuances of how people treat each other in the name of propriety. It might be accurate to call SISTER NOON a comedy of manners, and I'd definitely call it one of Fowler's best.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura B. McGrath writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books about studying literary diversity by analyzing "the most important data that no one outside of publishing has ever heard of: Comp Titles": "Comps are the books that most frequently influence editors' decisions about what to acquire, the books to which new titles are often compared, the books whose effects the industry longs to reproduce. In other words, comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values. It turns out the industry values whiteness."