May 4, 2022

April Reading Recap

My April was busy with various things, including celebrating my birthday and reading so many books:

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel opens in 1912, but the table of contents reveals that the story will range across centuries. That list of chapter titles offers several other intriguing hints, and I studied it with excitement. Other readers may prefer to set out as unprepared as the first protagonist, who travels by steamship from England to Canada in 1912 with no sense of what might happen when he arrives. In the course of the novel, characters undertake many journeys, some carefully planned and others subject to chance and whim. The story itself is whimsical at times, deeply thoughtful at others, and threaded through with a careful plan that guides the narrative.

I highly recommend this short novel to fans of Mandel's work. The story connects up in delightful ways with her previous novels and career, so while I expect anyone could appreciate the book, some previous familiarity will provide a deeper reading experience. Mandel wrote the novel during our real pandemic, while facing renewed interest in her already bestselling novel about a fictional pandemic, so it's no surprise that pandemics play a role in the plot. Other elements include mysterious phenomena and moon colonies and book tours and more that I won't spoil. I loved this strange and wonderful novel, and I hope you do, too.

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan: This was my second time reading this book, a collection of chapters written in different styles and focusing on different characters with connections to a few central figures. On my first reading a decade ago, I resisted the label of "novel" because I didn't find any central arc that unified the separate stories. This time around, I approached the text knowing what to expect from the structure, and also as a different reader. This time, I loved what the novel was doing, and it felt to me like an unquestionable, if unconventional novel.

The story is about time and its effect on the self, on memory, on technology and the music industry. So it's a philosophical sort of novel, focused on character and emotion, but I found it propulsive because every chapter involves tense events and interactions. The chapters build on each other, peeling back layers to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, or revealing future consequences. It's a cool way to get to know the characters, who are portrayed with specificity and humor. I'm fond of the whole cast after seeing them at different times and from different perspectives.

I'm glad I returned to this in another time and with another perspective, and I was happy to have it fresh in my mind for reading Egan's followup, THE CANDY HOUSE.

THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan: Like its predecessor, this novel is assembled out of chapters written in an array of styles, set in a range of times, and focused on a variety of people. The characters are all connected to each other, and they're connected to the cast of GOON SQUAD but mostly appeared only at the periphery of those stories. As the former background characters take center stage, events and details from the earlier novel are referenced and built upon, and while the reader doesn't need additional context, my recent revisit to the first book deepened my experience of the new one. What I came to appreciate most about both was unearthing all the links and echoes, and it was in part my familiarity with the web of characters that made me so fond of this novel.

Many sections of THE CANDY HOUSE revolve around a technology that allows people to externalize their memories and share them. As the invention and its offshoots grow in popularity, it becomes increasingly rare for anything to be forgotten, unknowable, or lost to time. Egan is less concerned with the scientific details of this tech and more with its possibilities as a literary device, which she uses to continue GOON SQUAD's explorations of time, memory, and self. But while this is a story more of ideas than plot, what it's most about is the characters who come alive as sympathetic, frustrating, singular people I was happy to get to know better.

JOAN IS OKAY by Weike Wang: Joan feels most at home at the New York City hospital where she works as an ICU attending. When her father dies suddenly, she flies to China only long enough for the funeral before returning to work. Everyone else -- her colleagues, her family, her intrusive new neighbor -- insist that she should take more time away from the hospital and grieve in a more acceptable way. But Joan has been hearing her whole life that her behavior and self are unacceptable, and she's content with who is and how she lives.

Joan narrates the novel from her very particular point of view, with observations that are insightful and often amusing. Through her interactions and her memories of growing up with her immigrant parents, we get some sense of the other people in her life, but since she keeps them all at a distance, their characters are only developed so far. There's less about medicine than I was expecting, and while I'd heard the story incorporates the pandemic, it mostly looms on the horizon, with COVID only reaching Joan's hospital at the very end. On the whole, the novel is more interior than I would have preferred, but it's well done.

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA by Ursula K. Le Guin: From an early age, Ged exhibits a powerful magical ability. His aunt teaches him all the spells she knows, but when raiders attack their village, Ged goes beyond her teachings to weave magic that saves their town. This feat attracts the attention of a renowned mage, who takes the boy on as an apprentice. In time, Ged has learned all he can from that teacher as well, and he gains admittance to the school for wizards. Ged studies hard, but he is overconfident in his powers, and in a show of bravado, he summons a dark force that almost kills him. This shadow continues to haunt Ged, and the quest to be free of it will send him on a dangerous journey around the islands of Earthsea.

I'd never read this fantasy classic that Le Guin wrote for teenagers. I'm not sure I even knew about it when I was a teen myself, or maybe I encountered the title among the other fantasy series I mostly didn't read. I've never been drawn to this sort of fantasy adventure, and while I appreciate that this is a well-written book, it wasn't a great book for me. I did enjoy the magic system based on knowing the true names of things, and I got caught up in the story during the tense sections. Many other sections were slower and more contemplative than I was expecting in a novel aimed at kids (though I'm no expert on young adult writing, and styles have probably changed). It was interesting to read this, but I've enjoyed Le Guin's other work more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, authors of two new novels write about the challenges of imagining fictional futures. As Claire Stanford drafted HAPPY FOR YOU, she had to keep updating the novel's technology: "When I began writing, I thought I was writing about a futuristic technology—an app that attempted, through a series of biometrics and user surveys, to assess one's emotions; now, while the technology is not quite as advanced as in my novel, these kinds of apps are more or less reality. And second, there was the ever-developing political context of internet technology, which, as I was writing, rapidly moved from personally unsettling to geopolitically destabilizing."

→ And Rebecca Scherm wavered between fear and optimism about the near future world of her story, and of her real children: "With my new novel, A HOUSE BETWEEN EARTH AND THE MOON, I was asking for a lot of change, because the stakes in my fictional future world are the stakes of my real one. The children in my novel are the same generation as my own children, and the book and its author wanted to know if they are going to be okay."

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