August 4, 2022

July Reading Recap

Last month, I enjoyed a good crop of recently published novels:

INVISIBLE THINGS by Mat Johnson: By the time the cryoship SS Delany reaches Jupiter, Nalini regrets joining the mission as a sociologist to study the crew dynamics. She might even regret entering the field of sociology, now that she's realizing just how terrible people are when they organize into groups. The frustrating power structure of the mission shifts when Nalini and her one real friend aboard make a bewildering discovery: There's a city under a dome on the moon Europa. This mysterious city turns out to be populated by humans who were abducted from Earth, or who descend from people abducted generations ago. The city looks just like a typical modern American city, and it operates like one, too, right down to the pervasive class inequality that keeps recent arrivals in precarity while descendants of the founders live in luxury. Now that Nalini is trapped there, with no way to get back home, she resigns herself to doing a sociological study of the stratified inhabitants. But even she is reluctant to explore the strange taboo against discussing the "invisible things" and the unsettling phenomena they cause.

The inventive and often absurd way the story's events unfold is characteristic of Johnson's work, and so is the biting humor. But this is a grimmer story than PYM and LOVING DAY, because despite the scifi premise, most of what occurs is depressingly close to our present reality. Writing satire is tough when everything actually happening is already so far-fetched, as Johnson discusses in a recent Fresh Air interview. So my reaction to this book is that it's well done, with a strong plot and a memorable cast of characters, but it's not the fun adventure I was anticipating.

THE EVENING HERO by Marie Myung-Ok Lee: Dr. Yungman Kwak has worked as an OB/GYN in a small Minnesota town for decades. When his hospital abruptly shuts down, he's forced into early retirement and realizes he doesn't know how to do anything except work. His relationship with his wife is strained, and maybe has been ever since they immigrated to America from Korea after the war. The recent return to Minnesota of their son, Einstein, might offer a chance to reconnect, but Yungman is bewildered by how Einstein lives his life, raises his own son, and practices medicine. Still, Yungman accepts Einstein's assistance in finding a new job at the high-end healthcare startup where he works. Meanwhile, letters arriving from Korea threaten to reveal the secret Yungman has concealed from his family: that he has a brother who he abandoned after the two had been through so much together during the difficult years of the war.

I was immediately drawn into this story, which opens by depicting both the great care Yungman has for his patients and the humor in situations he encounters practicing medicine in a small town. As the narrative progresses, it revels even more in the ridiculous while never losing the humanity of the characters. A middle section flashing back to Yungman's youth in Korea provides interesting context, but I missed the comedy of the rest of the book. On the whole, this novel is a bit uneven, somewhat too long, but largely an absorbing story, with excellent portrayals of both people and places.

FLYING SOLO by Linda Holmes: Laurie's beloved great-aunt never married or had kids, so after Dot dies, it falls to Laurie to return to her small Maine hometown and go through the contents of Dot's home. The project is a welcome break from her normal life in Seattle, since Laurie recently went through the embarrassing ordeal of calling off her wedding. Among Dot's many possessions, Laurie finds a beautifully painted wooden duck decoy. It seems an odd item for Dot to own, it was strangely buried at the bottom of a chest, and more questions arise when it turns out the decoy might be the work of a famous carver and therefore quite valuable. Laurie enlists both old and new friends to help solve the mystery, which eventually becomes a heist as the plot thickens. Her high school boyfriend, still living in their old hometown and now divorced, is an especially enthusiastic co-conspirator and willing to be something much more. But Laurie isn't sure if she ever wants a partner or if she'll be happiest living alone and on her own terms, like Dot.

This delightful novel combines a light, funny style with some deep insights about how many valid ways there are to arrange a life. I loved all the characters, their banter, and the strength of their bonds. The plot goes through a number of unexpected turns that are all a lot of fun and also make sense. The emotional moments are convincing as well, and the story reaches a satisfying conclusion. I'll definitely be continuing to follow Holmes's work.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At CrimeReads, Paula Munier writes entertainingly about the deadly role of cheese in crime fiction: "By far the most common criminal activity involving cheese is theft. Cheese is the most stolen food in the world: it's pricey, portable, and perfect for money laundering. In Italy, organized crime steals so much Parmigiano Reggiano that Italian banks often hold their customers' rounds in their vaults for safekeeping."

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