June 8, 2024

May Reading Recap

Catching up on reviews of the books I read in May:

WANDERING STARS by Tommy Orange: Jude Star is a young boy, asleep in a tipi, when white men show up at his camp and gun down everyone he knows. Some years after surviving this massacre at Sand Creek, he's among the men rounded up and imprisoned on a charge of "countless crimes committed by Southern Cheyennes against the U.S. Army." While held captive, he's taught to dress and behave like the white men. He learns to read and write English and finds value in books and writing down stories. Later, he learns to drink alcohol and discovers the escape and agony in what becomes a problem habit. After Jude's story, the narrative shifts to the next generation of his family, continuing down the years to the present, when another young boy survives another massacre.

This novel focuses on one of the families from Orange's debut, THERE THERE, filling in their history and exploring what happens after the conclusion of the first book. I think you could read this new book without knowledge of the other, though you'll probably be curious to go back and learn about the previous events.

In my review of THERE THERE, I wrote "I would happily have read many more chapters about every character," and it was indeed great to get that opportunity for some of them. The portrayals are once again vivid and emotional, and I cared deeply about these characters. Orange weaves together their perspectives well to show how each deals with the same issues, including addiction, connection to heritage, and the desire to tell their own stories.

MEMORY PIECE by Lisa Ko begins as an 80s coming-of-age story that hints at the future of three friends who meet as kids. Giselle is drawn to performance art from a young age. After a childhood in New Jersey, she carves out a life in the New York City art world, creating pieces based in the medium of time. Jackie learns to code before most people have even used a computer. She joins the New York tech scene during the dot-com bubble and is caught between her job at an emerging internet behemoth and the passion project she runs on her own servers. Ellen turns to activism, fighting for squatters' rights as she moves into and rehabilitates a vacant building with a newfound community. Those friends become family for life, but her oldest friends Giselle and Jackie drift in and out of her orbit for decades.

I liked many pieces of this novel, but the whole was less effective for me than I hoped it would be. Ko writes beautifully and crafts fascinating characters and situations. The book's structure is unusual, more disjointed and experimental than I expected, and I wasn't sure what to make of all the choices. I most enjoyed reading about Jackie's experiences with the early internet, while Giselle's art and Ellen's experiences in a too-close-for-comfort dystopian future both unsettled me, in their own ways. This is an impressively different type of book than Ko's excellent debut, THE LEAVERS, and I'm curious to read whatever she writes next.

CRYING IN H MART by Michelle Zauner: Zauner was twenty-five when her mother died, just as the two of them were starting to appreciate each other as people and looking forward to being adults together. During Michelle's childhood and teen years, her relationship with her mother was often difficult, but the one thing they could connect over was food. Michelle grew up appreciating her mother's Korean cooking and their deeper explorations of the cuisine when they traveled from Oregon to Seoul to spend time with relatives back in her mother's homeland. In this memoir, food is a constant backdrop to recollections of their too-short time together and the account of illness, death, and grief.

Naturally, this book that focuses on a mother's death from cancer is frequently sad and covers painful topics, but the many joyful memories, especially around food, keep the story from getting too bleak. Throughout, Zauner does a good job of presenting her thoughts and emotions frankly. I'm not that drawn to memoirs, but this one kept me engaged, and also hungry! I'm lucky to live where plenty of Korean food is available, so I got to try out a number of the dishes that appear in the book.

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES by Shelby Van Pelt: Marcellus is a giant Pacific octopus who has spent nearly all of his four-year lifespan captive in a tank. Tova is a 70-year-old human who cleans the aquarium at night. Ever since Tova's teenage son died 30 years ago, she's struggled to find a comfortable place among people, but she loves restoring order to the quiet aquarium, surrounded by the exhibits. When Tova finds Marcellus out of his tank one night, she realizes just how intelligent he is, and she even feels that he can understand her. Indeed, Marcellus prides himself on understanding humans better than they understand themselves. Meanwhile, far from the aquarium, a young man named Cameron is about to learn some information that will set him on a trajectory toward Marcellus and Tova, changing all their lives.

This is a sweet novel with a generally light-hearted tone, despite dealing with the subject of grief. Marcellus and Tova are wonderful characters, and I was disappointed when I realized the story was going to be mainly about how Tova and Cameron would connect, with Marcellus increasingly sidelined. But I did enjoy seeing how the human storylines were going to come together, though in the second half there was bit too much delaying of the inevitable. The colorful cast of supporting characters add extra quirkiness to this unique -- and very popular -- book.

BIG SWISS by Jen Beagin: Greta works as a transcriptionist, typing up the recorded sessions of a sex and relationship coach. She and the (not particularly effective) therapist live in the small town of Hudson, New York, so Greta is constantly running into people whose voices and secrets she recognizes from the recordings. She becomes fascinated by one client, nicknaming her "Big Swiss" and eagerly awaiting her next session. Big Swiss was once brutally attacked by a man who served time in prison and is about to be released. Big Swiss has also never had an orgasm. Inevitably, Greta encounters Big Swiss in real life and gets involved in both these situations.

Parts of this novel were a lot of fun and really made me laugh. Before I started reading, I expected a story that was mostly amusing if cringey, but it quickly became clear that plenty of disturbing and violent content was also in store. I was okay with that, though I still didn't anticipate how dark things would get (or how many insects would appear). I liked much of the book's weirdness but found some of it too rambling and unfocused, and the ending fell flat for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jeff O'Neal, co-founder of Book Riot, reflects on how much of the company's success was a product of the internet landscape at the time: "Twitter and Facebook were growing and growing and there was not an algorithm in sight. If you followed Book Riot on Facebook, you would see everything that we posted. In order. Same for Twitter. One stat that I repeat often to show how different of a world it was: in early 2013, BookRiot.com averaged 14 visits per month per Facebook follower. So for every thousand Facebook followers, we could count on Facebook sending 14,000 visitors per month. Today, that number is closer to 1/10th of a visit per Facebook follower."

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