June 6, 2022

May Reading Recap

May was another varied month of reading:

EUPHORIA by Lily King: Nell and Fen are married anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Nell's recent book has brought her a fame that Fen can't hope to match, which puts an additional strain on their volatile relationship. The two meet Bankson, another anthropologist in the area who has been struggling with feelings of isolation that push him to the brink of suicide. For Bankson, finding peers he can speak to freely is a lifeline that revitalizes both his will and his work. For Nell and Fen, the new friendship at first removes some of the pressure between them, but then introduces new conflicts as the bond between Nell and Bankson grows.

King has written an excellent novel analyzing the relationships between characters whose careers involve analyzing other people's relationships. The story as a whole is intense and sad, but the characters also share many moments of humor and joy. I was quickly invested in the three leads and the nuances of their reactions and behavior toward one another. The cultures of the different tribes are depicted in fascinating detail, and King explains in the acknowledgments that while these groups are fictional, she drew specifics from real tribes studied by Margaret Mead and the other anthropologists whose lives inspired this novel. The narrative also spends some time interrogating the nature and purpose of outsiders observing other societies. I'm glad I finally read this novel, and I plan to read more by Lily King.

THE DAYS OF AFREKETE by Asali Solomon: Liselle is hosting a dinner party to thank the people who worked on her husband's political campaign. It would be an odd dinner anyway, because Winn lost decisively against the incumbent, but what has Liselle on edge is that she's expecting the FBI to show up and arrest Winn in the course of the evening. While Liselle prepares, she thinks back on her past, especially her relationship with Selena in college, when she still considered herself a lesbian. Instead of making a life with another Black woman, Liselle ended up married to a white man, and this night has her wondering how that happened and what became of Selena, whose life followed a different and difficult path.

This character-focused, reflective novel kept me engaged throughout. Most of the story is in the connections and disconnects between the characters, and Solomon does an excellent job portraying these dynamics. The narrative voice is strong, incisive, and frequently funny. The book's setup had me expecting more to happen by the conclusion, and I found the ending abrupt, but I still appreciated the story.

NOTES FROM THE ROAD by Mike Ingram: One early January, before starting a new semester of teaching, Mike Ingram drove his friend's car from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where the friend was starting a great new job. Along the way, Mike pondered whether to stay in his own okay job, whether to try to salvage his rocky relationship, and whether to leave Philadelphia permanently. This book is a reflective essay on the journey, the soul searching, and the pieces of Americana that Mike encountered along the way.

I'm a longtime listener of the podcast Mike co-hosts, Book Fight, so I bring that context and bias to my enjoyment of this book. Still, I feel confident recommending it to anyone interested in well-written, thoughtful creative nonfiction that combines personal experience and research. The narration moves along quickly, lingering on only the most interesting or amusing details of the metaphorical and literal crossroads. The essay is nicely packaged by Awst Press into a pocket-sized paperback to serve as travel reading.

THE CARTOGRAPHERS by Peng Shepherd: Nell is a mapmaker who shares her father's passion for cartography. But the two haven't spoken in years, since a terrible falling out that led to him firing her from the map division of New York Public Library. When Nell's father dies suddenly, she's pulled back into the world of the NYPL, and she discovers an odd map hidden in his desk. It's not one of the valuable ancient artifacts he usually works with, but a cheap gas station road map. As Nell tries to determine its significance, she uncovers evidence suggesting her father may have been murdered, and that she could be in danger as well. There's something very strange about this map and what it represents, and it holds the clue to a string of impossible crimes and long-held dark secrets.

The novel's exploration of maps and libraries is fun, and the premise has potential, but unfortunately the execution was a big disappointment. Most of what the characters do and say seems primarily motivated by plot needs rather than plausible human reactions. And since the plot hinges on people behaving in ways that don't make a ton of sense, the story is on shaky ground from the start, and infuriating by the end. I really wanted to like this book, but I can't recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, Molly Templeton struggles to find the magic of reading while traveling in the new weirdness of traveling again: "What we want in the books we pack with us, when we're headed out on a road trip or to the airport or train station, is as varied as our travel preferences. Window, aisle, observation car. Escapism, education, a break from the norm. What I wanted was to fall into something, to repeat the experience of reading Wanderers on a flight and forgetting how long it was (the book or the flight). Reading a book while traveling can mean forever associating the book with motion; returning to a travel read can, faintly and distantly, recall that experience. American Gods is always traveling in Australia, to me, however contradictory that sounds. When I reread it, two landscapes layer over each other in my mind."