April 2, 2024

March Reading Recap

I've still been doing a lot of reading, which means I haven't been doing so much writing, but I sure have been doing a lot of reading.

SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND by Jennine CapĆ³ Crucet: Ismael Reyes (call him Izzy) is twenty years old, and so far his only ambition in life has been to capitalize on his resemblance to the singer Pitbull and make some easy money as a celebrity impersonator. After a cease and desist letter puts a stop to that, Izzy comes up with a plan to model himself after another Miami-associated personality, Tony Montana from the movie Scarface. Izzy figures that all he needs is a sidekick, some shady dudes who can hook them up with shady work, a girl, and maybe an exotic animal, and soon he'll be rich and powerful. As it happens, an exotic animal in Izzy's vicinity is aware of his scheme: The orca Lolita has spent decades confined to a too-small tank at the Miami Seaquarium, but her senses range much farther. Lolita observes Izzy and even infiltrates his thoughts as he seeks out the pieces of his plan. The search leads Izzy into questions he's long suppressed about the circumstances of his childhood journey to Miami on a raft from Cuba, questions that return him to dangerous waters.

I would not have been drawn to this book if not for my admiration of Crucet's previous novel, but I'm so glad I read it. This is a weird, audacious story, often hilarious and sometimes horrifying. Izzy is well-developed as a basically sweet kid who is completely out of his depth in striving to become a gangster. Lolita is an even more fascinating protagonist, and all her biographical details are taken directly from real life. Through omniscient narration, Crucet moves between their perspectives and those of other characters, while also commenting on Miami culture, history, and climate change. And don't worry if, like me, you know nothing about Scarface, because Crucet provides all the necessary context -- and said in an NPR interview that her goal was for people to "read this book and then never have to actually watch it."

FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS by Ursula K. Le Guin: The four stories in this collection are closely linked, and all take place on the planets Werel and Yeowe, which are also closely linked. On Werel, a system of slavery dominated society for thousands of years, and Werelians brought that system to the previously uninhabited Yeowe, where variations emerged. Finally, uprisings lead to decades of revolution and eventual liberation on both planets. During that turbulent period, Werel and Yeowe also begin accepting envoys from the Ekumen, the consortium of worlds that appears in much of Le Guin's fiction. Each of these stories shows some aspect of the transition to liberation, by focusing on a variety of characters from different places, with different societal positions.

I really liked getting to know all these characters while gradually learning more about the larger story of their worlds. Throughout the book, Le Guin is doing what she does best: imagining complex, plausible cultures and bringing them to life through specific character experiences. As the book's title suggests, forgiveness plays a role in every story. So does love, and characters from vastly different circumstances coming to understand each other is a recurring theme. I recommend this to any Le Guin fan, and I think it could serve as an introduction to her work.

GET IN TROUBLE by Kelly Link: I've often heard Kelly Link and her work referenced, but I don't think I'd read any of her stories before picking up this collection. The first story, "The Summer People", provides a good introduction to Link's style, because it starts with a character who is preoccupied by real-world concerns (illness, bad parenting, work), and the reader gradually comes to understand that she's also dealing with something weird and supernatural. Most of the stories similarly blend familiar situations, especially involving relationships between characters, with speculative elements of some kind. I enjoy this combination in general, and I liked Link's approach, though I sometimes wanted more exploration of the speculative parts, and several endings left me puzzled or disappointed.

Two of my favorites in the collection are both set in a world where superheroes are common. In "Secret Identity", a teenager travels to New York City to meet up with the man she's in an online relationship with. The way the story cleverly unfolds, first the reader has to figure out what's going on, and then the main character does. "Origin Story" is about a meeting of old friends, one of whom happens to be a famous superhero. In both stories, as in the collection overall, the character relationships are well-developed and specific, and there's a bit of humor as well as some real emotion. The most emotionally affecting story is also the most grounded in reality: "The Lesson", focusing on the tension in a couple's relationship as they attend a wedding while waiting for their surrogate to give birth to their child.

KINNING by Nisi Shawl: In the wake of the early twentieth century's Great War, a group of revolutionaries aim to prevent future conflicts by spreading peace and empathy. Their method is the fungus-based Spirit Medicine that creates bonds between fellow inoculants, who become able to sense each other's emotions and even communicate telepathically. The sister and brother scientists, Bee-Lung and Tink, along with the rest of the crew of their aircanoe, are on a mission to distribute the Spirit Medicine in their travels across Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, another sister and brother, the royal children Mwadi and Ilunga of Everfair, are vying to inherit the throne when their father abdicates. Their stories and those of many other characters converge over questions of Everfair's future, and then become further entwined through Spirit Medicine.

This sequel to EVERFAIR brings back many of its characters, but the story has a different focus and scope than the decades-long nation-building of the original, and it's not particularly important to know what happened before. Though I was curious to return to the story world, this book's plot didn't interest me nearly as much as the first. The idea of an empathy-spreading fungus is intriguing, but I didn't care for the way it played out. The characters spend a lot of time being caught up in sensuality that I wasn't feeling, and the mechanics of strains and cores eventually become tedious. While this wasn't for me, I applaud the originality of the concepts, and I hope the story finds the right readers.

THE THREAD COLLECTORS by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman follows two couples separated during the Civil War, one Black, one white and Jewish. When William flees out of slavery to join the Union Army, he leaves Stella behind in New Orleans. While he keeps up the spirits of his fellow soldiers by playing his flute, she embroiders handkerchiefs with maps to help more men in their escapes. At the military camp, William befriends a fellow musician, Jacob, who writes letters recounting their experiences to his beloved wife Lily. She's back home in New York City, where she organizes women in sewing quilts and making bandages to aid the troops and further the abolitionist movement.

This novel offers a lot of historical detail, but I didn't get much else out of it. In writing the book, the authors set out to "explore the Civil War experience through two underrepresented lenses" (Black and Jewish), and I was often conscious of that motive rather than transported into these experiences by the story. The characters rarely felt like real, complex people living the events from within their era. Despite that, the four characters' stories move along well enough, if a bit unevenly. Though the two women and their sewing are highlighted by the title, cover, and description, this is as much or more a story about the men, and what little impact the sewing has on the plot seems forced. William and Jacob's shared love of music, and the friendship that grows from it, is more effectively portrayed and might have been a better source for the title.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the New York Times, Anna Holmes celebrates the 100th year of The Boxcar Children: "But the food in 'The Boxcar Children' is so central, so memorable. For the Alden children the days and hours are marked not by school lessons or play dates but by meals and the position of the sun. Bread is 'fragrant,' with 'crusty ends.' Cheese in wax paper is 'golden.' Early in the book, Jessie, a 'little housekeeper' in line with the gender roles of the time, devises a makeshift refrigerator: a small pool of water in which she stores milk ('cold as ice') and butter ('cool and sweet')."


mamagotcha said...

I agree with your assessment of The Thread Collectors... I was disappointed when the focus was clearly pointed on the men. And I agree about the Boxcar Children food descriptions! Did you ever read any of the Redwall books? The description of the feasts always made me so hungry!

Lisa Eckstein said...

No, I never read any Redwall, but one of the few things I know about the series is that focus on food!

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