October 4, 2018

September Reading Recap

I'm enthusiastic about all three novels I read in September, two brand new and one older:

THE GOLDEN STATE by Lydia Kiesling: Daphne is having a tough day at her university job, faced with responding to the death of a student abroad, when she decides to pack up and leave. Her life already contains as much stress as she can handle, because she's parenting her toddler solo after her husband's deportation to Turkey over unresolved green card issues. Daphne collects her daughter from day care and drives away from San Francisco to the high desert at the eastern edge of California. The double-wide that she inherited from her grandparents is sitting empty in a remote town with not enough wifi, so it's the perfect place to retreat and avoid the question of what's going to happen next.

I adored this novel, which manages to be enthralling despite how much of the action is mundane daily logistics. Alone with her toddler on this unscheduled trip, Daphne ticks off the passing hours by picture books read, string cheeses distributed, and cigarettes snuck. Daphne's strong narrative voice fills this accounting with tension: her child isn't stimulated enough, string cheese makes up too much of her diet, a better mother would have quit smoking. The lack of major plot developments becomes the novel's conflict, as Daphne fails to act on her abandoned job responsibilities, respond to her husband's questions about her plans, or do anything besides remain stalled in the high desert. Eventually life gives Daphne the push she needs to get unstuck, which leads to something finally happening next.

SEVERANCE by Ling Ma: Before the apocalypse, Candace lives in New York City, dabbling in photography and working at a book production company, where she coordinates the printing of Bibles. Afterwards, when most of the population has succumbed to a strange fever, Candace joins up with a small band of survivors journeying toward a possible refuge in Chicago. The story switches between these timelines, chronicling Candace's increasingly isolated existence in New York as the end times descend and her increasingly uneasy assimilation into the survivor group.

Many reviews call this novel a satire, but I wouldn't describe it that way, though there's humor to Candace's shrewd observations of modern life. The details of work, culture, and post-apocalyptic survival struck me as realistic or plausible, never elevated to the ridiculous, and that authenticity is one of the things I liked best about the book. Candace herself is a full and complex character, even at points when she drifts along detached from what's happening around her. I was sorry the novel ended when it did, without following Candace a bit longer or answering a few more of the questions the story raises, but I was glad for the time I got to spend in Candace's before and after.

SARAH CANARY by Karen Joy Fowler: Chin and his fellow railway workers are on their way to another job in the Washington Territory in 1873 when a mysterious white woman emerges from the forest. Her babbling speech and odd behavior suggests she's wandered away from the nearby asylum, so Chin attempts to return her there, though he's half-hoping she's one of the ghost lovers from stories. The simple task becomes a harrowing adventure, and then another, with more people pulled into the orbit of the perpetually inscrutable woman known as Sarah Canary.

Everyone who gets tangled up with Sarah Canary is a fascinating character, wonderfully depicted, and I grew fond of them all, even the villain a bit. Fowler brings the historical setting to life with vivid detail, and occasional short passages about real period events provide fun and useful context. The story addresses the blatant racism, sexism, and other horrors of the time, but the narrative's deadpan humor keeps the story feeling like a wild romp even when events become dark. I enjoyed keeping up with these delightful characters as they chased each other through the exciting plot.

I've read a couple of Fowler's other novels (this was her first), and I always admire her writing. I intend to read more of her work in the upcoming months, because she's going to be an honored guest at the next Friends of the Genre Con in March. Fowler has published both speculative and realistic fiction. Readers can approach SARAH CANARY with that knowledge, but may want to save learning Fowler's intentions until after reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ M.R. Carey analyzes apocalyptic trends for Electric Literature and discusses how these stories reflect each era's fears: "Every generation sees the end of the world through the prism of its own day-to-day reality. And the popularity of apocalyptic fiction seems to rise and fall in line with real-world fears and tensions and insecurities. Taxonomy only takes us so far, though. What's remarkable about the best post-apocalyptic narratives is what they do with their initial premise--what kind of stories they launch from the springboard of global catastrophe."

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