February 5, 2024

January Reading Recap

I started off the year with a lot of reading!

THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD AND OTHER STORIES by Ursula K. Le Guin: What Le Guin excels at is imagining a culture and bringing it to life with well-considered, fascinating detail, and the stories in this collection really show off this talent for approaching science fiction anthropologically.

In several of the stories, Le Guin revisits a culture she created earlier and takes the opportunity to explore the implications at leisure. "Coming of Age in Karhide" uses a young person's perspective to explain the practical workings of the Gethenian gender and sexuality established in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. "Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are love stories set on the planet O, where marriages involve four people, linked in a specific arrangement. These stories are all light on plot but strong on developing the characters and the complicated dynamics of their relationships.

The world of "Solitude" is one where relationships are nearly forbidden, and the way Le Guin explores that idea with characters from inside and outside the culture is thought-provoking and affecting. In "The Birthday of the World", the narrator is so deep inside a particular religious tradition that the reader only gets to understand it gradually, as Le Guin masterfully unspools the story.

The book ends with a novella, "Paradises Lost", that's just the sort of generation ship story I've been wanting to read. The main characters are the fifth generation born on a ship that left Earth bound for a distant planet. The journey will end in the next generation, when these characters are old, and so they grow up viewing the ship as their entire world and never really understanding the irrelevant concept of a planet. Le Guin depicts life in this limited situation with insight, developing the plot carefully and cleverly. It's a captivating finale to a superb collection.

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. Le Guin: Something disturbing happens when George dreams. After particularly vivid dreams, he wakes to discover the world has changed to match whatever he dreamed, and he's the only one who remembers the old reality. Desperate to stop the dreams and their unpredictable consequences, George turns to drugs, and that gets him sent for therapy with Dr. Haber, a specialist in sleep and dream disorders. Haber thinks George's claims sound delusional, but he's eager to put George into a dream state and study the EEG. If Haber can get to the bottom of what in George's dreams is making him so afraid, maybe he can learn something that will do good in the world, and also elevate his status as a researcher.

I really liked this short, smart novel. It was published in 1971, and early on, it felt very of that era to me, especially when Dr. Haber delivers long, expositional monologues. I couldn't find a connection at first to the later Le Guin stories I'd just read, but as the story develops, more of her subtlety and interests emerge. The way the plot unfolds chapter by chapter is so clever, unexpected, and ultimately moving.

JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE by Naomi Kanakia: Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy. On the surface, everyone at the all-girls school is welcoming and supportive, but Tara is finding it hard to fit in. She isn't rich or white like most of the other students, and she's a nerd who loves reading famous speeches but still performs terribly in the debate club. Though she's been able to transition socially at home and school, she hasn't started hormones due to oppressive state laws and her parents' concern that an investigation by child welfare services could endanger their visas. Only when Tara interviews for a spot in the school's elite club, the Sibyls, does she find somewhere to belong, with true friends who fully accept her. But then the school administration questions whether Tara is eligible to become a Sibyl, sparking a controversy that splits the club and soon spreads beyond the school. Tara has to decide if she's willing step into the public spotlight and speak out for herself.

Through Tara's first person narration, Kanakia portrays a realistically complicated character who has mixed feelings about so much in her life, as real people do. I enjoyed the character's honesty and nuance, and I felt for her in the story's joy and pain. Other characters are also well developed, especially Tara's parents, who are supportive and trying hard, but don't always get things right. I wished the dialogue had been smoother, and the plot was a bit unevenly paced. Despite some flaws, I'm happy this book is here.

THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride: By 1936, most of the Jewish families of Pottstown, Pennsylvania have moved off of Chicken Hill, but Chona Ludlow convinces her husband that they should stay in what is now a mostly Black neighborhood. Though traditionally the Jewish and Black communities haven't mixed, Chona's grocery store serves everyone, and she intends to keep running it. She also intends to keep speaking out and fighting back against hate and injustice whenever she spots it, no matter how much trouble it causes. So when a Black Deaf boy from the neighborhood is orphaned, Chona is happy to take him in, and to hide him from the state authorities who want to place him in a horrific institution. This leads to whole new levels of trouble, though, with a series of repercussions that involve a wide range of people from in and around Chicken Hill.

I liked so many parts of this novel, but there are so many parts, and I was frustrated they didn't all come together as well as I expected. The book is packed with characters, and it takes some patience to get to know them all, because whenever one is introduced, there's a recounting of their life history, and sometimes that of their ancestors. I mostly didn't mind that digressive style, since McBride is a great, funny storyteller who has imagined a terrific cast. Where the book fell short for me was the plot: While a lot of pieces are set up to connect by the end, I found that ending rushed and unsatisfying, with a number of threads and questions left dangling. Still, these characters will stay with me, as I know they will for so many other readers.

ERASURE by Percival Everett: Thelonious "Monk" Ellison has published a number of novels that have gone largely unread. His work is experimental and difficult, and he's often criticized for choosing subject matter that is anything other than what readers consider representative of Black life. Monk is enraged by the popularity of a new novel, We's Lives in Da Ghetto, praised for authentically depicting the Black experience. After a series of family tragedies, Monk is left caring for his aging mother and strapped for cash. He spends a week writing a parody, My Pafology, a novel full of every infuriating stereotype, and sends it to his agent to distribute under a pseudonym. To Monk's horror, an editor snaps up the manuscript for an outrageous sum, and it's on the way to becoming another runaway success.

I was excited about the premise of this novel, but I didn't enjoy reading it as much as the book I was expecting. Though the novel contains the entire text of My Pafology in all its painful glory, what happens to Monk as a result of publishing it takes up less of the main text, and gets less wild, than I anticipated. Large stretches of the story are about Monk's family, and while his reaction to his mother's decline is emotional, that plot didn't interest me as much as directions I thought the publishing satire might go. The text is also peppered with experimental passages I didn't understand. I'm left thinking that I'm probably repeating all the sins of Monk's critics, and that this book is operating at a higher level of satire than I'm able to appreciate. (As one example, I learned afterwards that familiarity with Native Son would add another layer of understanding.)

I'm interested to watch the new movie adaptation, American Fiction, and to read more of Everett's many and wildly varied books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Nicholas Dames shares an excerpt from his book about the history of the chapter: "The conventionality of the chapter places it in the middle of a spectrum of form: too ordinary to be easily apparent as a particular aesthetic method or choice, too necessary to eliminate in the name of an antiformal freedom that claims to speak on behalf of pure 'life.' That intermediate position is a place, we might say, where form's deliberate artifice and life's unruly vibrancy mix most intimately. The chapter has one foot in both restriction and freedom, diluting the force of both: a not very severe restriction, a somewhat circumscribed freedom."

January 30, 2024

Releases I'm Ready For, Winter 2024

In my previous post, I looked back at the highlights of my 2023 reading. By now, my 2024 reading is already well underway, and I'm looking ahead to the new books I've been anticipating:

KINNING by Nisi Shawl (January 23): I didn't actually get much chance to anticipate this one, because I only just learned the good news that Shawl has written a sequel to EVERFAIR. In this alternate nineteenth century, Black American missionaries and white British socialists come together to turn part of the Congo into a new nation that offers safety and progress. Plus, there are airships and other steam technology. I read the first book in February 2020 (Shawl was an honored guest at the last strange FOGcon) and then put a lot of other information into my brain, so I'll need to refresh my memory of the story, but I remember that I enjoyed the world and characters.

The rest of my anticipated reads are the second novels published by authors whose debuts I really liked. Second novels are notoriously tricky, because they're often written in much less time, from ideas that haven't percolated as long, under the pressure of trying to replicate a success. I'm eager to see what these writers have done next, whether they match my expectations or not.

COME AND GET IT by Kiley Reid (January 30) is billed as "a tension-filled story about money, indiscretion, and bad behavior" involving a college senior and a visiting professor. That sounds like a fitting follow-up to SUCH A FUN AGE, a page-turner about class, race, and privilege involving a babysitter and her employer.

WANDERING STARS by Tommy Orange (February 27) is both a sequel and prequel to THERE THERE. In the first book, a variety of Native characters with connections to Oakland have plotlines that converge suspensefully at a powwow. The new book deals with consequences from those events and also goes back into the past to explore generations of Native history.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND by Jennine CapĆ³ Crucet (March 5): I wouldn't normally pick up a book described as "Scarface meets Moby Dick," but since I was a big fan of MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS, I'm going to check this out. Crucet's first novel followed a first generation college student in a story that was compellingly told but I guess pretty conventional. Nothing sounds conventional about the story of a wannabe gangster on a quest involving a possibly magical killer whale. It promises to be a wild ride.

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST by Xochitl Gonzalez (March 5): As it happens, one protagonist of Gonzalez's second novel is a first generation college student (at Brown University). The other is an artist who died dramatically in the previous decade, and the student investigates her story. I admired the complexity and layered conflicts of OLGA DIES DREAMING, and this sounds like an even more intriguing setup.

MEMORY PIECE by Lisa Ko (March 19) follows three friends from the 1980s into the 2040s. That's a premise I'd be drawn to regardless, and I'm especially excited it's been written by the author of THE LEAVERS. I was so impressed by the riveting plot and deft handling of family secrets in that novel, and I can't wait to read more.

January 18, 2024

2023 By The Books

I had a great reading year in 2023. Happily, reflecting on my past year of reading with enthusiasm is the norm for me, because I'm fortunate to get the chance to read most days, I always have a book or two in progress, and there are so many great books to choose from. I only wish I was a faster reader so I could enjoy even more of those books! It's possible I'm finally getting a little speedier, though: In 2023, I read an almost unprecedented 51 books. (Or maybe I simply spent more time reading at the expense of more writing progress.)

Last year, a couple of things changed my reading habits some, especially by leading me to more books that weren't published in the past year or two. I joined a book club for the first time, and every club selection was from at least five years ago, some from decades back. The book club has been a good experience in reading even more widely than I already do, and I've read a number of books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, including some memoirs. (I'm still not much of a fan of memoir.)

The other reading innovation of 2023 is that I borrowed far more ebooks from my public library than in previous years. I've used the Libby system sporadically for a while, but sometime in 2022 I started relying on it more, and last year I took full advantage. I sometimes get on waiting lists for brand new books, but I especially use Libby availability as a prompt to check out books from past years that I never got around to. (If you read ebooks or audiobooks and aren't already using Libby, jump on this bandwagon!)

Between the overlapping changes of book club and library borrowing, I read a higher percentage than usual of books that weren't new releases. A recurring pattern lately has been that around two-thirds of the books I read were published that year, and in 2023, it was less than half. Still, around two-thirds were from 2020 or later, and except for book club picks, I mostly stuck to books less than ten years old, so it's not as though I've significantly veered from my preference for contemporary reading. (A recency bias, if you will.)

That habit is continuing to work out well for me, because almost all my favorite books of 2023 were published in 2023, and the oldest is from 2019. But beyond that similarity, my favorites are wide-ranging, spanning a variety of genres, topics, and styles. I've wrangled them into some groupings below. (Find my full review of each book at the linked monthly reading recap.)

I didn't expect my top picks to include so many mystery and crime stories, since I don't think of myself as gravitating toward those genres. None of these are exactly prototypical examples, and that's consistent with my attraction to stories that resist categorization, subvert formulas, and do multiple things well. HAPPINESS FALLS by Angie Kim (September) is a gripping, twisting mystery and also a portrait of a family in the midst of multiple crises. It starts as a missing person story, and then the mystery widens as the family members realize how much they don't know about each other, particularly the child who is unable to speak. In I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU by Rebecca Makkai (June), the characters use a true crime podcast to re-examine the case of a student murdered at their boarding school decades ago. As the investigation unfolds, former classmates grapple with the impact of the events, the role of memory and nostalgia, and the ethics of turning crime into entertainment. Both these mystery novels impressed me with how realistic the scenarios stayed even as the plots satisfyingly thickened.

The crime novels on my list offer a fascinating look inside the criminal world of a specific place and time. In AGE OF VICE by Deepti Kapoor (January), readers follow the central character from an impoverished childhood to a comfortable life serving a powerful, corrupt family in early 2000s Delhi. CROOK MANIFESTO by Colson Whitehead (August), the second book of a series, portrays the shady side of Harlem in the 1970s, featuring a cast of thieves, gangsters, and dirty cops. Both books bring their settings to life with the help of multiple character viewpoints and masterful prose.

Specificity of place and time is a common feature of many of my 2023 favorites. THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith (December) is the most firmly historical fiction, combining details of real historical people and events with wonderfully imagined characterizations. The story covers much of the 1800s, focusing especially on prominent London literary figures and a bizarre court case about a disputed inheritance (so it's a crime story as well!). In MOBILITY by Lydia Kiesling (August), we meet an American teenager in 1998 Azerbaijan and follow her into adulthood and around the world on a personal coming-of-age journey that also tracks the climate change narrative we're all a part of. ALL THIS COULD BE DIFFERENT by Sarah Thankam Mathews (April) doesn't hinge quite as much on setting, but the main character's life is shaped by graduating into the recession of the late 2000s. She finds a job in a city where she doesn't know anybody, and in the course of the layered novel, she fulfills her longing for friendship and love. Nuanced character dynamics are prominent in all three of these books, and really in all my favorites.

The novels I've discussed so far are grounded in reality. Now I'll turn to my favorites in the speculative genres, but even some of these draw heavily on real world places and times. I read two excellent horror novels that are also historical. LONE WOMEN by Victor LaValle (April) depicts solitary women homesteading in 1915 Montana, a landscape that's brutal and dangerous enough before the story's horror element emerges. How the women come together to survive frontier life is as much a part of the story as how they handle the mysterious contents of the main character's steamer trunk. Similarly, the threats faced by characters in THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS by Matt Ruff (March) are sometimes supernatural but just as often a consequence of being Black in 1957 America. (This is another second book in a series.)

Setting plays a big role in the delightfully original LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki (April). Amid the Asian communities (and cuisines!) of San Gabriel Valley, a trans violin prodigy is taken in by a teacher who made a deal with a devil, the two befriend a family of extraterrestrials who run a donut shop, and joyful hijinks ensue. By contrast, time is the critical element in RECURSION by Blake Crouch (December). That's because it's a time travel thriller where characters jump between alternate timelines in a clever and intricate plot that made my brain hurt. It might seem a bit forced that I've grouped these two wildly different books together this way, but what they share is that both surprised me by how emotionally affecting I found them.

My final three picks leave the real world entirely, since they're all science fiction of the space opera variety. The distinctive protagonists of TRANSLATION STATE by Ann Leckie (June) come from different planets and cultures, but a search for a fugitive translator brings them together with repercussions that may affect diplomacy between all sentient species. In MERU by S.B. Divya (February), most humans are confined to Earth while their improved genetic descendants roam the stars without needing protection from the vacuum of space. When the human main character is permitted to explore a distant planet, she travels as a passenger inside the body of one of the post-human characters. The robot narrator of SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells (November) hates spending time on planets and wishes its humans would finish up their mission and get off this particularly unpleasant one before even more goes wrong. The first of these wonderful novels is set in a larger fictional universe but can be read as a standalone, the second is the promising start of a new series, and the third is the latest installment of an ongoing series. All involve intricate and imaginative worldbuilding, exciting plots, and complex characters.

I've already started 2024 with some great reading, and I can't wait to read on!

January 3, 2024

December Reading Recap

I wrapped up a great year of reading with a final four books!

THE FRAUD by Zadie Smith: By 1867, Eliza Touchet has spent decades managing the household of her cousin by marriage, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. Over the course of their long and complicated relationship, she's also perfected the art of managing William's ego. This entails avoiding references to the fact that his work isn't as popular as it used to be and negotiating the ever-changing friendships and rivalries with his literary contemporaries. Eliza sometimes allows herself to wish for a life beyond William's house. A form of escape comes from a surprising source when Eliza starts following the Tichborne case, in which an obvious fraud declares himself the missing heir to an aristocratic estate. Though Eliza doesn't believe the absurd claim, she's fascinated by how many people do, and she's increasingly captivated by the legal proceedings and the figures involved in the case.

I loved this novel, which brings to life historical people and events I'd never heard of. Ainsworth was a successful author of dozens of novels, forgotten after his death, unlike his friend Charles Dickens. The Tichborne case was so entertainingly bizarre that in places Smith reproduces portions of actual court transcripts. Though Eliza Touchet really existed, her character in the novel is mostly a product of Smith's wonderful imagination. Eliza is smart, funny, and generally perceptive but with some notable areas of failed understanding. By focusing on Eliza's singular point of view (and occasionally others), Smith crafts an engrossing, wide-ranging story out of events both real and fictional, or maybe somewhere in between.

RECURSION by Blake Crouch: Barry is the first officer on the scene when a woman goes out on the ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump. What's driven her to suicide is that she's the latest person afflicted with False Memory Syndrome, a mysterious new condition that causes distressingly vivid memories from an alternate life. The woman's inexplicable sorrow over a child who seemingly never existed moves Barry, as both a grieving father and a detective who can't resist solving puzzles. He begins investigating, determined to put together the strange pieces of this case. Ten years earlier, Helena has run out of funding for her research into recording and reliving memories, a goal she hopes will help people with cognitive decline, like her mother. Then a powerful billionaire offers her unlimited resources to continue her memory work at a secure facility out on a decommissioned oil rig. He promises her that if she accepts this audacious proposal, they're going to change the world.

I was really impressed by this twisty tale of false memories and alternate timelines. The setups of Barry and Helena's stories let the reader start forming theories about what's going on, but nothing played out quite as I expected. Eventually, of course, Barry and Helena connect, and then there are many more surprises in store. I love time-bending stories, and the mechanics of this one made my brain hurt in the best way. I was also more emotionally affected by the novel than I would have predicted at the start. My mind will keep going back to RECURSION, and I'll be seeking out more of Crouch's scifi thrillers.

OLD IN ART SCHOOL: A MEMOIR OF STARTING OVER by Nell Painter: After retiring from an accomplished career as a professor of history, Nell Painter entered art school at the age of 64. The creation and study of art had been a lifelong interest, but she'd mostly set it aside for decades to focus on teaching and writing. By pursuing a BFA and then an MFA, the aptly named Painter finally gives herself the opportunity to not merely make art as a hobby, but to commit at a professional level. Though she's sometimes able to completely immerse herself in art like her younger fellow students, her attention is often split, since she's also caring for her elderly parents on the other side of the country and completing her latest book. As an artist, Painter remains a historian, drawing from the past for inspiration and always seeking to place works in a larger context.

This was a book club pick that I approached without much enthusiasm, and while I never entirely overcame that, once I got a few chapters in, I mostly stayed interested. For me, there wasn't quite enough to the story to warrant a whole book, but Painter is clearly an experienced writer who knows how to craft a narrative with the material she has. I listened to the audio book, which is read well by the author, so I missed out on seeing the artworks that accompany the text. I enjoyed the book most when Painter talks about the joy of being caught up in her art projects. There's a lot of discussion about visual art and artists that readers with that interest will probably appreciate more than me.

WUNDERSMITH: THE CALLING OF MORRIGAN CROW by Jessica Townsend: Following the events of NEVERMOOR, Morrigan Crow has earned a place in the Wundrous Society and discovered the nature of her mysterious power. She can't wait to start school, bond with her classmates, and learn all sorts of exciting new skills. But by the end of the first week, Morrigan has been disappointed on every front, and Wunsoc doesn't feel like the welcoming community she thought it would be. She wishes she could talk to her patron about it all, but Jupiter keeps being called away to help search for missing Wunsoc members. As the number of disappearances mounts and more threats loom, Morrigan increasingly tries to solve her problems alone.

This is a strong sequel that starts playing out the implications of everything set up in the first book. Morrigan's school experience introduces new situations and great new characters. I was glad to spend time with the existing characters and watch their friendships continue to grow, and I enjoyed seeing more of Nevermoor and the Wundrous Society. The story world is a bit high on the whimsy for my taste, but it's all cleverly done and well imagined. I wasn't wild about how much the plot relied on kids not turning to adults for help, so I may be too much of an adult for this series, but I'll probably keep reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Emma Pattee considers the False Promise of Climate Fiction: "Perhaps the confusion about what climate fiction can – and should – do is really just a question of the thin line between art and propaganda. While both may look like a book and quack like a book, most of the writers I spoke with described their fiction as an exploration towards an unknown destination. Propaganda, whose goal is persuasion, must know the destination and take the most succinct, least nuanced path to get there. When the label of 'climate fiction' is applied to a book, every plot choice and character starts to be seen as a message about climate change."