February 5, 2020

January Reading Recap

I started off the year as I mean to go on -- with a lot of reading!

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid: Emira is out on a Saturday night when the family she babysits for calls and begs her to take their toddler away from the house while they deal with an emergency. As Emira skillfully entertains Briar in a fancy grocery store, another customer grows suspicious about the black woman with the little white girl. There's an incident with a security guard that Emira just wants to forget, but Briar's mother, Alix, considers it a sign that she needs to start taking a more active interest in her babysitter. While Alix enacts an agenda to improve Emira's life, Emira's actual life proceeds in directions that would surprise her. One development in particular threatens to make all the characters examine their own motives and assumptions -- or not, as the case may be.

This novel is a delight in so many ways. The dialogue is some of the best I've ever read, with each character speaking in exactly the way that sounds natural and alive for them, even the toddler. The well-crafted plot is tight and tense, with great use of dramatic irony to set up a situation that the reader, but none of the characters, knows is poised to explode. Through alternating points of view that are compassionate to both characters, Reid shows how Emira and Alix's experiences and priorities differ. SUCH A FUN AGE offers a nuanced commentary on class, race, and privilege, an insightful look at caregiving, and a page-turner of a story.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN by Charles Yu: Willis Wu is Generic Asian Man, or sometimes Delivery Guy or Dead Asian Guy. His lifelong dream has been to attain the role of Kung Fu Guy, the highest rank available to an Asian actor. Willis, his aging parents, and all their Chinatown neighbors work at the Golden Palace restaurant, which serves as an interior on the cop show Black and White. In the world of this story, there is no reality beyond the show, or at least Willis can't conceive of any bigger dream than playing a stereotyped other in the dichotomy of Black and White.

INTERIOR CHINATOWN (or, INTERIOR: CHINATOWN) is another great, weird work of metaphorical metafiction from Yu. Since Willis exists inside a TV world, the novel is laid out in the font and format of a screenplay, with longer prose sections mixed in among the centered dialogue. Rather than becoming a tedious gimmick, the format grows even more clever as the story proceeds and Willis strains against the limitations of his life. This novel is funny and heart-wrenching by turns, and it's packed with sharp observations on race in America. I recommend it, and I guarantee you've never read anything quite like it.

HERE AND NOW AND THEN by Mike Chen: Eighteen years ago, Kin was on a Temporal Corruption Bureau mission when he became stranded in 1996. Unable to return to 2142 or even hold on to the memories of his life there, Kin built a new life. It's been a happy one, with a wife and now teenage daughter who know nothing about his past in the future. Then another TCB agent finally appears to whisk Kin back to 2142, just weeks after his departure. He's supposed to slide seamlessly into the life he can't quite remember, but he isn't about to forget the family he left behind.

It's a cool premise, and the plot is clever and fast-paced. At points, I did wonder, "Since they have time travel, couldn't they just...?", but I was willing to overlook those holes to enjoy the inventive story. Other flaws bothered me more, such as a flatness to the characters that meant the novel didn't deliver as much emotional impact as it was going for. In general, I wished for a richer, more nuanced version of this story, but this was a fun read with some touching moments. Chen just released a second novel, A BEGINNING AT THE END, and since it's set in a post-pandemic San Francisco, I may be picking it up.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt opens with our narrator, Richard, and his friends murdering one of their college classmates. Richard then goes back to the beginning to explain what took him from an unhappy upbringing in California to a small college in Vermont, where he enrolls in an immersive study of Greek and other classical topics. His classmates in this insulated course of study, the eventual murder co-conspirators and victim, are a tight group of friends who are reluctant to welcome an outsider. But as the months go on, Richard gains acceptance and finds happiness with his new friends, until he discovers the conflicts and secrets splintering the group.

I read THE SECRET HISTORY because for years I've encountered people talking about their love for this novel in ways and contexts that suggested I would also enjoy it. Sorry, friends, but not only did I not enjoy it, I'm baffled as to why this lengthy book is so popular. Sure, the writing is strong enough at the sentence and paragraph level, and the characters are entertaining, but it takes such a long time for anything to happen, and then most of it doesn't amount to anything.

The story slows down right after the intriguing prologue that establishes the murder, but eventually conflict starts to brew again, though unfortunately Richard learns about the most exciting events secondhand. For a while, I kept believing there was a solid plot at the core, despite the filler that constantly works against it. An example of this dilution is that Richard speaks of how he and the other students admire their charismatic professor, but the teacher is absent for such long stretches of the text that it's hard to accept his impact on most of what occurs. At the halfway point, the story arrives back at the murder, and I looked forward to exploring the uncharted territory ahead. Alas, the various tantalizing plot possibilities went nowhere. After another fairly pointless section, the final set of conflicts and turns lead to an underwhelming conclusion, and Richard's story fizzles out in an unsatisfying epilogue. For another perspective on how the novel unfolds, consult almost anyone else who's read it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ For Electric Lit, Michael Zapata recounts the stories of books that were almost lost to history: "At some point, while both finishing the resulting novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, and searching for my great-grandfather's poems, which my grandfather incredibly discovered on his 100th birthday, I began to wonder about the innumerable books condemned to the abyss by personal and historical ruptures of space and time, and all those books nearly lost to history which, through impossible odds, still reach us like shadows from other worlds."