July 3, 2019

May/June Reading Recap

It's time to catch up on two months of great and varied reading:

RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston: Alex Claremont-Diaz is the son of the first female president, and he relishes the spotlight this places him in. As soon as Alex finishes his last year of college and sees his mom re-elected, he intends to channel his charm and popularity into a career in politics, like both his parents. If only the boring, stuck-up younger prince of England wasn't messing up Alex's plans! When Alex and Prince Henry have an altercation at the royal wedding, it creates an international incident that the White House and Crown publicity teams must scramble to spin. The rivals are forced into making joint appearances to convince the world they're actually great friends. As they spend time together, Alex discovers the real Henry behind the royal facade, and their pretend friendship becomes genuine. Then Alex discovers Henry's feelings for him are deeper than friendship, and he's shocked to realize the attraction is mutual. Now the two most eligible bachelors in the world have to somehow keep their relationship out of the spotlight and avoid a scandal that could topple the reigning families on both sides of the Atlantic.

This book is pure delight. Alex and Henry are both deeply lovable in all their complexities and flaws, and the characters around them are just as endearing. While the premise is unlikely, the story progresses in a very plausible way, with McQuiston anticipating the media reactions and political ramifications of every development. The gradually advancing romance is the core of the story, but there are also several well-depicted subplots about politics, family, and grief, some of which make the story quite serious at times. Most of it, though, is laugh-out-loud snappy dialogue, and/or steamy sex and longing.

You may not realize you need a politically optimistic gay love story in your life during these trying times, but you do. RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE has you covered.

EXHALATION by Ted Chiang is another dazzling collection of stories from a wildly creative science fiction writer. I'm in awe of the way Chiang consistently comes up with incredibly clever ideas and then makes engaging stories out of them, a combination that's hard to achieve.

While Chiang's stories are all pretty different from each other, he does return to certain interests. I was delighted to read another story in his scifi subgenre that involves taking some religious belief as scientific fact and spinning out the world that results. In "Omphalos", an archaeologist explains how her field provides evidence of God's creation by digging up signs of the first plants and animals: trees with no rings at the center and bones that lack any signs of growth. In the world of this story, there's no question about the origin of life on Earth, but doubt enters from another angle.

Several stories explore fate and free will. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a page-turning time travel story with more stories nested inside it, charting how a variety of people cope with the opportunity to learn their own futures. In "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom", devices exist that can split off parallel timelines and allow limited communication between them. This story is long enough to play out the experiences of several characters as they cope with the psychological effects of seeing other possible versions of their lives.

About a third of the book is devoted to "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", an absorbing, emotional novella about developers at a company creating digital pets for users to raise inside virtual worlds. The story unfolds over years, plausibly presenting how the pets and their owners evolve and how the technology progresses and gets exploited.

I haven't even mentioned all my favorite stories (the title story is scientifically rigorous and also suspenseful!), because most of them qualify. I highly recommend this collection, along with the earlier STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS.

RULES FOR VISITING by Jessica Francis Kane: At 40, May lives in her childhood home with her elderly father and the memories of her mother's difficult life and death. She works as a gardener at the university and is happy to interact more with plants than people. Though May has a couple of casual friends nearby, the friends she was once close to live far away, and they barely stay connected. When May is rewarded with extra time off from work, she decides to use it making a series of visits to the good friends from her past.

The novel's title, prologue, and marketing led me to expect the bulk of the story would focus on May's visits to her four friends, so I was surprised by how long the book spends with May at home, before and between the visits. Especially early on, when there was quite a bit of May describing her hometown and neighbors, I found the story slow, but as I got to know her better, I could appreciate those sections that were more musing than scenes. Kane writes beautifully and is a great observer of human details, so the individual pieces of the book were largely enjoyable to read. Still, I would have preferred a more strongly plotted version of this novel, with more narrative drive.

I LIVE WITH YOU by Carol Emshwiller: The stories in this collection defy easy classification. Most produce a sense of the unreal, but only a few have an overtly fantastical element. Many are unsettling, some to the point that they become horror. All are fascinating and original, and I'm so glad to finally be acquainted with the late Emshwiller's work.

War is a major theme in the collection, and the characters in the war stories are all fighting perpetual conflicts with little understanding of what separates the two sides. In "Boys", even the colonel narrating only knows that it's necessary to keep stealing young boys from the villages to replenish the army. When the women in a village rise up against him, they reveal how long they've been undermining his efforts. In "My General", a woman takes in an enemy prisoner to work on her farm, and for a while it looks as though there might be a way out of the cycle of war.

The roles and expectations of men and women feature heavily throughout the collection. There's often a sentiment of Us versus Them, whether it stems from gendered assumptions, warring sides, or some other division. "Coo People" explains that another species of beings lives undetected among humans, differing mainly in the slight lift that provides an advantage in ballet and similar fields. All the characters in "Gliders Though They Be" are non-human creatures, and mutual hatred exists between those with the ability to glide from a great height and those without.

While these stories are dark, they usually contain love, but it tends to be an obsessive kind, based upon nothing. The narrator of "Bountiful City" so desperately wants to be in love that she randomly picks a target and pursues him before they've ever spoken. In "See No Evil, Feel No Joy", a woman in a strict religious sect begins to disobey after she briefly locks eyes with one of the men. I found these off-kilter love stories disturbingly compelling, and evoking this feeling seems to be Emshwiller's particular talent. If you're on board with that kind of reading experience, I hope you'll be as captivated by this book as I was.

THE TENTH MUSE by Catherine Chung: Katherine is a talented mathematician starting her career in the 1960s and struggling to be taken seriously as a woman and an Asian-American. Her childhood with a white father and a Chinese mother was often confusing, and life became harder when her mother abruptly left. After the shocking news that the woman she knew as her mother didn't give birth to her, Katherine is ready to leave her past behind and devote herself to math. However, the math she's pursuing in her attempt to solve the elusive Riemann hypothesis is more connected to her past than she ever could have imagined.

I was excited to read this novel of math and family secrets, but it left me disappointed. Many parts of the plot interested me, but the twists and turns became a lot to swallow, and I wasn't sufficiently convinced by the character actions and reactions to let myself be pulled along. Several structural and narrative choices seem to work against the story, such as a lengthy reveal of secrets in the middle of the book delivered as nested monologues. I appreciated the math history I learned from the mention or appearance of real historical figures, especially women. I wish there had been more explanation of the math itself, though I recognize it would be a challenge to describe the very complex problems Katherine is tackling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Nina Martyris explores The Curious Power of Giving Book Characters the Same Name: "In comedy, for instance, the same-name device is commonplace, as in the delightful case of Thompson and Thomson, the bungling Scotland Yard detectives in the Adventures of Tintin comic series, alike in everything but the curl of their mustache. The contorted ways in which they introduce themselves, including, 'This is Thompson, yes, with a P as in Philadelphia' and 'This is Thomson, no without a P, as in Venezuela,' never fail to spark joy."

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