November 7, 2022

October Reading Recap

Last month's reading was all brand new books I'd been anticipating:

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie: Zahra and Maryam are fourteen in Karachi in 1988. They have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Also as long as they can remember, Pakistan has been under the rule of a dictator. In a year of many changes for the girls, they both experiment with first crushes and learn uncomfortable truths about their families, but their friendship remains a constant. When the president dies in a plane crash and a democratic election brings a woman to power, the future becomes bright with possibility. Then Zahra and Maryam share an upsetting experience with repercussions that will spool out over the decades to come.

I formed some early guesses about how this story would develop, then kept revising my predictions, but what actually happens in this excellent novel was always different and more complex. And often smaller, in a way I appreciated: For example, the event that sets pieces in motion is big by fourteen-year-old standards but not so terrible or significant in the scheme of things, and that makes what follows more interesting. This novel is all about the small moments between people and the effect of those accumulating over time, and Shamsie portrays those moments so well in every scene. I was invested in Zahra, Maryam, and their friendship from the first pages, and I remained captivated by every development.

THE FURROWS by Namwali Serpell: When Cassandra is twelve and her little brother is seven, he drowns in the ocean. Cassandra is there to witness Wayne's death, but his body is never found and the circumstances are confusing. As a result, Cassandra's mother believes Wayne is only missing, and her conviction interferes with the family's ability to grieve. Years later, Cassandra meets a man at a cafe and thinks he's her lost brother. At the moment of her realization, chaos erupts. Then the story seems to begin again, but this time, Wayne dies when he's hit by a car.

I spent the first half of this strange, absorbing novel wondering whether the shifting reality of the narrative would eventually have an explanation or was more of a metaphor about the uncertainty of grief. The answer is sort of both. In the second half, the book shifts even more, and certain mysteries gradually become clear, but not the expected ones. I never had any idea where the story was going, and I thoroughly enjoyed that experience. Serpell is a gifted writer, especially when it comes to narrative voice, and the characters she's crafted here feel solidly real even while the world around them fractures.

OUR MISSING HEARTS by Celeste Ng: At twelve, Bird is intimately familiar with PACT, the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act, because its importance in saving the country from crisis has been drummed into him every day at school. Yet he's only starting to understand what PACT has to do with his mother leaving three years ago, or with other children being removed from their parents by the government. Bird's father says to forget about his mother, but the kids at school never let Bird forget that since she's a Person of Asian Origin, the whole family's loyalty is suspect. When Bird receives a mysterious letter from his mother, he knows he should burn this incriminating material. Instead, he tries to puzzle out its meaning, while investigating her possible connection to a string of artistic anti-PACT protests.

The dystopian near future of this story is chillingly close to reality, and Ng sets it up convincingly. The speculative setting isn't the only shift from her excellent previous novels, both set in the recent past of the real world. In what I took to be a reflection of the many folktales referenced in OUR MISSING HEARTS, the plot and characters are often fable-like, involving an epic quest, archetypal figures, and long sections of storytelling. This is a departure from the earlier books, which stood out to me for how nuanced and real the characters and their dynamics felt, and that was a bit of a disappointment. I still found this an engrossing novel, but I didn't love it like Ng's others.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jason Mosberg analyzes the trend of TV and movie studios preferring to adapt books and other media instead of seeking original scripts: "One reason seems to be that the agents and executives and managers and assistants are lacking confidence in their own ability to judge material. Oh, this is a book that a company published? Then it must be good. But of course that’s not true; many books aren't good. Scripts—even when written by produced, award winning screenwriters—don't come with an automatic stamp of approval. And yet an obscure self-published comic book with no fanbase somehow does?"

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