January 6, 2023

December Reading Recap

My reading year ended well, with a great month of books:

BABEL by R.F. Kuang: After Robin is orphaned by a plague in Canton in 1829, an Englishman he's never met arrives with an odd proposition: that Robin return with him to England and study languages. There Robin is tutored in Latin and Greek and continues practicing Mandarin and English until he's old enough to enroll at Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel. Babel's scholars develop and control all England's silver-work, bars of silver engraved with language match-pairs used to power the country and keep it dominant over the colonies. Robin's first days at Oxford open up his previously lonely world, and he's quickly in love with the university, with the translation work, and with the new friends he'll spend the next four years studying beside. Then his eyes are opened as well, when he learns that while Babel's magic relies on foreign languages, its work is designed to oppress foreign nations, like the homelands of Robin and his new friends.

BABEL is a skillfully crafted novel that lives up to its ambitious intentions. The complete title, "Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution", conveys some of the story's intricacy and also warns that by the end, there will be violence and revolution. The plot gets brutal, and Kuang does not go easy on the characters after making the reader love them. In the story's calmer moments, I appreciated the time spent discussing languages and translation and exploring the workings of the language-magic. This is a fascinating work of alternate history in which magic has reshaped the world and yet real events still play out in much the same way, and that provides an illuminating perspective on colonialism and exploitation.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz opens with a section titled "Bonds: A Novel by Harold Vanner" that tells the story of an infamously successful and reclusive financier. Benjamin Rask's only interest is in analyzing the stock ticker, and as he makes more money, he withdraws further from society. But he knows marriage is expected of him, and he finds an appropriate match in Helen, who also values solitude and independence after her unusual upbringing. This novel-within-a-novel follows the Rasks' marriage and their growing wealth through the 1920s, and at the end of the decade, there are developments on both fronts. Then the narrative shifts to a different sort of text, attributed to a different author, and new light is cast on the story of the Rasks.

TRUST is a novel that requires some patience, because it becomes more interesting as each layer is exposed. The first section involves intriguing characters, but it's written in a style that's sometimes slow going, and I was glad to be aware that something else was coming after it. With each new section, I enjoyed the increasing fun of working out the connections and guessing at what the eventual reveals would be. Diaz does a great job developing and complicating the characters at each level of the story. The book as a whole is well-crafted and clever, and I only wish the final section went slightly more in-depth to answer some lingering questions.

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus has the trappings and tone of a light-hearted comedy, but it's actually a heavy-hearted one. As the novel opens, it's 1961, and Elizabeth Zott is a single mother to a precocious daughter as well as the star of a wildly popular cooking show. She's also depressed, because none of this is the life she wanted for herself. Elizabeth is a chemist, and a good one, but she was thrown out of a PhD program after her advisor raped her. She still goes on to pursue a career in chemistry, though relentless sexism makes every day at the lab a struggle. Then Elizabeth meets a fellow chemist, the only man who doesn't underestimate her, and she finally finds love and happiness after a lifetime of tragedy. Alas, that happiness is short-lived, and Elizabeth winds up on her own again, with a child and without a job. That leads eventually to hosting a TV show, purportedly to teach housewives how to prepare healthy meals but actually a platform Elizabeth uses to teach women about chemistry and their own worth and power.

As I mentioned, this is a comic novel, but I want to make clear that it's a dark comedy about surviving trauma, which isn't something most descriptions of the book mention. While I ultimately liked it quite a lot, it took me some time to start connecting because my expectations were set wrong. Garmus is using a quirkily humorous tone and sometimes absurd situations to tackle the realities of misogyny through an entertaining story. Elizabeth and the allies she gradually gathers are all excellent characters, and they're well developed through shifting points of view, including that of a very smart dog. I recommend this novel and am glad it's finding such success, but I'm surprised most of the discussion focuses on the funny parts and not the serious ones.

EVEN GREATER MISTAKES by Charlie Jane Anders collects some of her many short stories, all full of memorable characters and inventive speculative elements. I was glad to have an opportunity to spend time with a range of her work, because though most of these stories are freely available online, I'd only gotten around to reading a couple of them before. The short introduction before each story providing context about Anders's career is a nice bonus.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection play with time. "The Time Travel Club" cleverly combines imaginary and real time travel in a story featuring a whole group of wonderful characters. (Really, wonderful characters are a hallmark of every story here.) "Six Months, Three Days" charts the turbulent romance between two people who can both see the future, but in different ways. "Ghost Champagne" is an emotional story about a woman who is tormented by the constant presence of her own ghost, back from the future to haunt her.

Finding and building community is also a big theme in Anders's work. I enjoyed "Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy", a quiet story about people trying to make a community on the San Francisco archipelago after the sea rises. "The Bookstore at the End of America" takes place in a divided future country that wages nonstop civil war, but the story itself is a hopeful one about the owner and patrons of a bookstore at the borderlands.

While not every story was to my taste, I was a fan of others I haven't listed here, and the collection was more hits than misses for me. A big chunk in the middle of the book is the novella "Rock Manning Goes for Broke" (the first section is online), and I was wary since the introduction warns it's extremely violent. But I was quickly drawn in by the character voice, and the surreal, slapstick nature of the story appealed to me far more than I would have expected. Which is fitting, because the unexpected is a constantly impressive feature in the work of Charlie Jane Anders.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ R. K. Duncan addresses SFF's Big Fat Problem at Tor.com: "We should all be having a conversation about how fat caricatures as villains serve to harm an already marginalized community, about how casual use of medicalizing language serves to other fat people, about how so much unremarked fatphobia makes SFF an unwelcoming community for fat creators and fat fans."

→ Meg Elison writes at Uncanny Magazine about progress in portrayal of fat characters: "Like every author on this list, I'm putting my whole fat self on the page, in the worlds that I want to see, in the struggles I know to be real by the ache between my thighs, in the heroics and beauties I know we can achieve because I see and feel them every day."

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