November 7, 2016

October Reading Recap

In addition to two debut novels, last month's reading included a rare work of nonfiction:

THE WANGS VS. THE WORLD by Jade Chang: Charles Wang accumulated all the wealth and success America could offer, and now he's lost it. The cosmetics empire he founded after immigrating from Taiwan has fallen victim to the 2008 financial crisis, and poor investment decisions mean his family's luxurious Bel Air home and the rest of their property is repossessed. Charles, his second wife, and his two younger children leave California and drive across the US to find refuge in the home of the oldest daughter in upstate New York. As the family clashes with each other and copes with the disappearance of their affluent life, Charles remains fixated on reclaiming an asset his family lost long ago, the ancestral land in China the Wangs once presided over.

This is only the broadest summary of the novel, which goes deep into the lives of the five family members, exploring and complicating their failures, desires, and secrets. I loved getting to know each of the Wangs and watching them struggle to find their way through a world that once seemed so easy. Every character is unpleasant and neurotic at times, none are quite what they appear at first, and I was rooting for all of them by the end.

Chang brings this family to life with a series of unexpected choices and a strong vein of humor. The Wangs' road trip is an entertaining disaster, and this novel is a lot of fun.

THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett: In the wake of losing her mother to suicide, teenage Nadia finds solace in a relationship with Luke, the son of the pastor in her San Diego church community. Nadia is college-bound, and when she gets pregnant, she knows she wants an abortion. Luke gives her money for the procedure but abandons her at the clinic afterwards. As Nadia struggles with losing another person she loved, she befriends Aubrey, another motherless girl from the congregation, but never tells her new best friend about Luke or the abortion. Nadia leaves for college in Michigan, Luke and Aubrey remain in California, and the three weave in and out of each other's lives during the years that follow.

The characters drew me into this novel, and I stayed invested in their growth as time passed. That passage of time is itself an intriguing aspect of the story, because Bennett takes an interestingly casual approach to leaping over years. She's a talented writer, rendering each scene with well-observed details and believable character dynamics.

However, the book fell short for me by not delivering quite enough of a story. I enjoyed following the characters, but I was well into the pages before I felt the plot moving in any clear direction, and when pieces eventually came together, they met with less impact than I anticipated. Many readers have heaped praise on this novel, but it left me unsatisfied despite many strong elements.

PANDEMIC: TRACKING CONTAGIONS, FROM CHOLERA TO EBOLA AND BEYOND by Sonia Shah: I don't often read nonfiction, but I was thinking about pandemics, because who doesn't, and I remembered hearing good things about this book when it came out earlier this year. It's packed with fascinating, terrifying details, presented in a highly readable narrative.

The book examines the factors that lead to diseases spreading and considers how they came into play during past outbreaks, comparing long-ago and recent scenarios. Some of the facts bode poorly for the future, as when Shah explains that diseases are more likely than ever before to jump from other animals into humans, since habitat destruction and climate change push these populations closer together. In other areas, progress works in our favor, and I was glad to have the benefit of historical distance when reading the horror stories of periods when mistaken scientific beliefs made people more vulnerable to disease. I was astonished to learn about the influence of pathogens on human evolution, and I was amused to come across some surprise Hamilton content.

My only disappointment was that the book didn't cover as much ground as I expected. I was under the impression there would be more speculation on future outbreaks, but that was less of a focus than I imagined. I was also surprised that certain famous pandemics, such as the bubonic plague and influenza in 1918, received little attention. I suppose Shah wanted to present less-explored material by focusing on cholera's long history and several diseases with twenty-first century outbreaks. So while I would have been happy for another hundred pages or so with those topics included, I enjoyed/feared all the information contained in this entertaining/horrific book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Electric Literature presents Jeff VanderMeer's Illustrated Guide to Writing Scenes and Stories: "Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements--the general situations, the impetus or driving force--you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story--in this case, depicted as a lizard--but you still have decisions as to where you're going to begin and where you're going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It's also a question of what's right for the story you're telling, for the kinds of characters that you're using, and in the context of their unique characteristics."

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