February 3, 2022

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with some great and varied reading:

THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich: Tookie is released from prison after serving a sentence of many years for her involvement in a strange crime. She gets a job in a Minneapolis bookstore and lives a normal life for a while, until the store becomes haunted by a customer who is as annoying in death as she was in life. This happens in November 2019, and as the haunting becomes more ominous, so do events beyond the bookstore. The pandemic arrives, and Tookie's family faces the terror and confusion of trying to avoid sickness. Then Minneapolis police kill George Floyd, the city erupts in protest, and they try to find ways to help while staying safe. Meanwhile, the ghost still lurks as the one threat that just might be surmountable.

There's a beautiful rawness to this novel. Tookie's narration lays bare the unprocessed emotions she's coping with, often putting into words the feelings that many experienced in 2020. The narrative itself seems raw in places, not as polished as it might have been with more time, but that's not a shortcoming in this case, and I'm glad Erdrich crafted this story while the events are still fresh. Much that happens in the book is hard to read about, but there is also delight. The story contains a huge amount of love, for both people and books, and a fair amount of humor. Tookie and all the other characters are going to stay with me, and if I ever get to visit the real Birchbark Books, I'll be disappointed not to find them there (other than Erdrich, who has inserted herself into the novel)!

CIRCE by Madeline Miller: Circe, daughter of a Titan and a naiad, grows up among divine immortals who scorn her for lacking beauty and power. As a child, she has a brief encounter with Prometheus and is fascinated by his connection to mortals and the kindness that results in his eternal punishment. When Circe finally has a chance to meet a mortal herself, she falls in love, and in her desire to have him, she discovers the power that's been hiding within her. Circe is a witch, able to wield powerful magic, and this magic results in her exile to a deserted island. She's sentenced to captivity there for eternity, but gods and mortals come and go in the centuries that follow, and Circe plays her part in what will become the epic tales of heroes and monsters.

I'd encountered so many enthusiastic reviews of this book, and it really was as good as everyone said. Circe is a fascinating, complicated character, and so are the other figures of myth and legend who Miller portrays in surprising and nuanced ways. The relationships Circe forms with mortals are full of strong emotions, with the tragedy of their finite lifespans always lurking in the background. Most of the book's plot is drawn from ancient stories about Circe, some I was familiar with but most I never knew or forgot about, so my reading experience was a fun mix of anticipating what was ahead, having no idea, and being impressed by how Miller combines and skews existing material. The novel is written as a look behind the myths at what really happened and how much more power Circe and the other women actually held, and it succeeds wonderfully.

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Monique is a young journalist just starting out. Evelyn Hugo is an aging movie star, famous for her career, her beauty, and her seven marriages. Inexplicably, Evelyn approaches Monique with the exclusive offer to write a tell-all biography. She won't say why she chose Monique, and she won't answer the question of who was the great love of her life, but she promises all will be revealed by the time she finishes telling her life story.

The answer to the second mystery is the reason you might want to pick up the novel: Evelyn's great love is a woman, and the two can't be public about their relationship due to the times and their celebrity, a strain that drives them apart more than once. Evelyn, who is bisexual, marries some of her husbands for love and some as a front. The intricacies of the many relationships makes for an absorbing plot. However, despite some character complexity and good emotional moments, I often found actions and reactions unconvincing, driven more by plot needs than character motivations. The story's most contrived and poorly set up element is the big secret of why Evelyn is talking to Monique, and this would have been a better book without that frame.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In Uncanny Magazine, Meg Elison writes about the importance of portraying bodies: "In all the fiction and nonfiction that I read, I am searching for the body. In fiction, I want to know how a character feels; how they churn and bleed, how they laugh from deep in the belly or cry their crocodile tears, how they plunge their hands into dry beans for the pure sensual joy of the act, or crush a half-rotten orange beneath a chunky heel just for the pleasure of decayed destruction in the gutter. Each of these actions of the body tells me something about the character and something else about the world. It is as important as dialogue and as plot, and it is the inescapable fact of the meat that carries our consciousness."

→ And in the same issue, Lincoln Michel considers the presence and absence of bodies in cyberpunk: "Science fiction—and especially cyberpunk—loses something essential when the flesh fades away in the pixels. Because cyberpunk is the genre that can examine what emerging technologies are doing to us. How they will impact and change humanity."

No comments:

Post a Comment