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."

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