October 5, 2022

September Reading Recap

Last month's reading was once again an extremely varied selection:

NUMBER ONE FAN by Meg Elison: Eli is in the middle of a hectic book tour and glad to get out of the heat and into the ride she called, where a cool bottled drink is waiting. She wakes up chained to a bed in a basement. The man who has kidnapped her is obsessively familiar with her books, a magical law enforcement series that has been adapted into popular movies, but he seems to be having trouble understanding that Eli is the author of the novels, not the main character. When she refuses to play along with this fantasy, the physical and psychological torture begins. Through the pain and despair, Eli keeps looking for ways to save herself, because she doesn't know if anyone except maybe her assistant will realize she's missing.

As should be clear from that description, this is a disturbing novel, and often brutally detailed, but it's very well done. While the bulk of the story focuses on Eli's experience of her captivity and memories of past events, other character perspectives appear to give a fuller picture of what's happening -- and further increase the tension. Elison is deeply familiar with the nuances of genre, fandom, and social media, all of which adds realistic layers to the plot. I recommend this gripping thriller, but only to readers prepared for an intense book.

THE CITY INSIDE by Samit Basu: In a very near future Delhi, everything has become more extreme: climate change and pollution, political and societal divisiveness, surveillance, and social media. Joey works as a Reality Controller, managing the Flow of a popular online star, and she's talented at presenting the carefully crafted "reality" that endears him to both fans and funders. When she learns an old friend is under pressure from his wealthy and powerfully unethical family, she offers him a job that's intended to provide an escape. But Rudra's family seems to be exerting control over Joey's company now, and there's a whole web of conspiracies the two will need to investigate.

The characters and the well-developed worldbuilding pulled me into the story right away, and I remained immersed. I liked reading about the production and business side of Flows and watching Joey and her team sometimes work great together and sometimes clash. The many ongoing crises of the offline world are woven pretty well into the story, though there wasn't space for a full exploration of everything. I found the pacing somewhat uneven and wanted the story's events to form a more cohesive plot, but I still enjoyed this novel all the way through. (I also enjoyed Basu's Big Idea post about envisioning and reenvisioning the book.)

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks: What brings Hanna from her safe home in Sydney to war-ravaged Sarajevo in 1996 is a book. A beautiful medieval haggadah (a book used in the Passover seder) that was thought destroyed in the war has been rediscovered, and Hanna's skills as a conservator are needed. While taking the book apart to repair the binding, Hanna finds bits of debris including an insect wing and a white hair. After the work is done, she sets out to visit other experts who might help her understand the book's history, and along the way, she also learns more about her own. Alternate chapters set in earlier eras follow characters who played a role in the haggadah's survival across the centuries, explaining the mysteries behind Hanna's findings.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and there's real drama behind what's known of its recent history. The extended history invented by Brooks is fascinating, though I thought a few sections heightened the drama to the level of melodrama. Extensive research clearly went into the novel, and while some of the setting descriptions were too detailed for my taste, I appreciated the specifics about how characters lived in the different times. Because much of the story necessarily focuses on Jewish oppression, there's a lot that's hard to read, but the overall story is one of perseverance. It also doesn't exclusively focus on hate, but instead shows the points that Muslim and Christian characters chose to help preserve this Jewish artifact. This novel introduced me to many places and times I knew nothing about, and I expect the story will stay with me.

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY by Mahsa Mohebali, translated from Farsi by Mariam Rahmani: Tehran has been shaking since midnight from a steady string of earthquakes, but what really concerns Shadi is that she's almost out of opium. Her panicked mother wants to gather the family and leave for safety, but Shadi is uninterested in escaping and knows the family car won't get anywhere in the snarled traffic. Shadi sets off on foot to check in on her friends and their opium stashes. The upheaval in the streets is more societal than literal, and there's revolution brewing as she roams the city, encountering old and new friends and strange adventures.

This short novel was interesting to read even though I wasn't wild about it. Shadi is a distinctive narrator who bounces between ideas, jokes, and deep ruminations. She talks about a lot of people in her life with very little explanation, and while the disorientation this creates for the reader is probably deliberate on Mohebali's part, it did make the story hard to follow in places. I'm sure I lacked plenty of cultural context that I wouldn't expect the novel to provide, but I would have liked more context for Shadi as a character so I cared more about her day's adventures.

I appreciated the afterword by translator Mariam Rahmani that explains her approach to translating a story that was radical when published in Iran but despite her best efforts won't seem as transgressive to readers from freer countries. Rahmani also wrote about the experience of translating the book in an essay in Granta.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bettina Makalintal at Eater digs into the recent bounty of romance novels set in the world of food entertainment: "Beyond mirroring an author's own hobbies, food is the perfect plot device for the kinds of moments and personal revelations that are essential for romance's meet-cute to conflict to happy ending pipeline, and whether it's televised competitions or dueling food trucks, the food world is a convenient setting for romance's popular tropes and story structures. Food, like sex, is a sensual experience that fits into romance's sense of delight. But above all is the evergreen popularity of food — there is more food to watch, read, listen to, and consume than ever, yet audiences remain interested."

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